The subject of Parashat Toldot is Isaac, Abraham's heir and successor. Isaac was the child of Abraham and Sarah's old age, the son for whom they had prayed and waited for decades and on whom they pinned all their hopes of continuing their lifework so that their vision of making the world into God's home not come to naught. They made great sacrifices in order to properly groom him for his future role and arrange a suitable match for him so that he, in turn, could perpetuate their heritage and vision.

Yet, the picture the Torah presents us of Isaac seems in many ways the antithesis of all that we know about his father Abraham. True, Isaac is no less devoted to carrying out God's will than is Abraham, and is even prepared to sacrifice his life without hesitation at God's behest. But in the Torah's account of Isaac's life, we see no expansion of his father's great undertaking of educating humanity, no new branches in the family enterprise. Unlike Abraham, Isaac fights no great battles, hardly mingles in world affairs, never leaves the confines of the Holy Land, and takes no additional wives or handmaids in order to enlarge his immediate family beyond the two children born to him from his one wife. He seems content to passively let life unfold around him; he is much more passively acted upon by events and circumstances than actively initiating them. In fact, his life is so bereft of activity that although he lived the longest of the patriarchs, he is the subject of only one parashah (in contrast with Abraham and Sarah's three and Jacob's six!). The one and only active undertaking the Torah relates regarding Isaac is that he dug wells. Is this—of all things—the only achievement the illustrious heir to Abraham's legacy is capable of?

On the other hand, the Torah records no hint that anyone—not Abraham, and not even God Himself—was in any way dissatisfied by Isaac's apparent passivity. There seems to be a tacit understanding that Isaac was doing what he was supposed to be doing. Quietly, and without fanfare, he continued his father's enterprise, not by emulating his father's behavior but by taking it to the next, higher level.

Isaac understood (and, in all likelihood, so did Abraham) that as revolutionary and necessary as Abraham's work was, it was, by nature, of limited effect. Abraham's method of disseminating Divine consciousness was to spread it to everyone—to reach the widest-possible audience by making no prior demands on his listeners. This was really the only way he could succeed in publicizing his message, for since the world was not yet interested in what he had to say, stipulating conditions would have unnecessarily limited his influence. The disadvantage of his approach was that by not requiring any preparatory work from his audience, Abraham did not effect any permanent change in them.

When we read an assignment before hearing a lecture, we are much better able to absorb the contents of the lecture than when we hear it "cold." If the subject-matter is totally new to us, we are likely to not understand a word and walk away as ignorant of the subject as we were before we entered the lecture hall, and certainly not be affected by what we heard. The most we can get out of such an experience is to be vaguely impressed by the personality of the lecturer and/or the apparent depth of the topic. We may be inspired to read the assignment next time, but the lecture's success in having changed our perspectives or affected our lives in any tangible way is nil.

Similarly, Abraham may have impressed and inspired his audiences, but since he did not require them to do any "homework," that is, to follow up his teachings by refining themselves further, they could not attain any levels of Divine consciousness higher than those he could expose them to himself. They remained essentially unchanged by his teachings. This is not meant to belittle the tremendous impact of Abraham's efforts—he influenced thousands of people and attracted a sizeable following. But these masses were nourished wholly by his inspiration, charisma, and personal example. When they left his presence and resumed their own lives, their enthusiasm for his teachings waned.

Isaac thus sensed that the very approach responsible for the outstanding success of his father's program was, paradoxically, also the greatest threat to its perpetuation. He understood that, in order to ensure the continued success of his father's undertaking, his own discipline, strictness, rigorousness and a respect for standards (gevurah) would now have to complement his father's loving-kindness (chesed), just as his mother's particularism had had to complement his father's universalism.

He introduced into Abraham's program the ideal of self-refinement, of encouraging the disciple to assume responsibility for laying the spiritual groundwork before hearing the master's lesson. Whereas Abraham's approach can be conceived of as a downward vector, bringing Divinity "down" to even the lowest rungs of humanity, Isaac's approach can be conceived of as an upward vector, elevating people so they can integrate increasingly higher levels of Divine consciousness into their lives.

This was precisely the message Isaac communicated to the world by digging wells. As opposed to filling a pit with water brought from elsewhere, digging a well reveals an already-existing source of water merely concealed beneath layers of earth. If Abraham's message to the world was: "Come revive your jaded, insensate minds with the refreshing water of Divine consciousness," Isaac's message was: "Now that you have been revived, look for your own source of water. Dig away all the dirt, rid yourself of all the filth encumbering your life, and you will reveal within yourself a wellspring of Divine awareness that will serve to quench your spiritual thirst your whole lifetime."

(True, Abraham also dug wells. But it is profoundly telling that all his wells were blocked up by his enemies. The whole notion of well-digging was so uncharacteristic of his approach that the wells he dug proved to be short-lived.)

In this regard, Isaac was the perfect model for humanity. We find him meditating in the field, shunning superficial conflict with his neighbors, constantly striving to refine himself, and always focusing inward. In this way, he reached a spiritual perfection so intense that, coupled with his material success, it drew others to him instinctively.1 He had no need to seek disciples; disciples sought him. His charismatic spirituality even won over the ruling powers, who had previously banished him from their country out of jealousy of his success and growing following.2

This is why this parashah is called Toldot, which means "descendants." Adam, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Jacob, and even Terach, Ishmael, and Esau—all the central personalities of Genesis—had descendants, and the Torah sees fit to enumerate them. Yet it is only the chronicle of Isaac's lifework, as recorded in the single parashah that focuses on him, that is entitled Toldot. For only Isaac embodied and preached the approach that ensures lasting results, that produces disciples—one's spiritual "children"—capable of standing on their own.

The shortcoming in Isaac's approach was that since he made his influence totally contingent on his disciples' preparedness, they were limited by their ability to elevate themselves on their own. Thus, although the changes they made in their lives under Isaac's tutelage were more long-lasting than those made by Abraham's disciples under his, the levels of Divine consciousness they experienced were much less lofty. Abraham showed them great heights, but could not keep them there; Isaac kept them where he took them, but would not expose them to anything that they themselves were not ready to internalize.

Furthermore, by insisting that his audience elevate themselves in order to receive Divine consciousness, Isaac made it effectively impossible for Divine consciousness to filter down to the lower strata of humanity; for Abraham, this had not been a problem.

The lesson we must learn from Isaac's life is that while it is true that we must primarily emulate Abraham's work, spreading Divine consciousness as widely as possible, we must, at the same time, not neglect our own spiritual development. Successfully disseminating Divine consciousness depends on our own spiritual growth, for we cannot hope to inspire others if we allow our personal spiritual wellsprings to run dry. On the contrary, the more our audience senses that we take spiritual self-development seriously, the more they will be swept up by our enthusiasm, even if it is communicated to them only subliminally.

As we shall see, the true synthesis of Abraham's and Isaac's approaches was effected in the life and approach of Isaac's son Jacob. Nonetheless, the unique inner intensity of Isaac's approach renders it central to the prophetic vision of the messianic future. Until the Messiah comes, we, like Abraham, are required by the Torah to actively convey its message to the non-Jewish world.3 In the messianic future, in contrast, we will not have to reach out to the world; rather—

The mountain of God's House shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. Many peoples shall go and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of God, to the House of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us of His ways so we may walk in His paths." For the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem.4

The intense spirituality emanating from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem will draw the world-at-large to it like a magnet; just as Isaac had no need to leave the Holy Land, so, too, will the Jewish people's manifest spiritual charisma inspire the non-Jewish world to come to the Holy City to learn God's will, thereby transforming the whole world into God's home.5