Four Different Interpretations

On the verse:1 “And these are the chronicles of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak,” the commentaries note that one of the phrases, “Yitzchak the son of Avraham” and “Avraham begat Yitzchak,” seems redundant. Several explanations are given, among them:

a) The Talmud and Midrash state2 that the peoples of the world were gossiping that Avraham was not Yitzchak’s father. Therefore G‑d caused Yitzchak’s countenance to resemble that of Avraham, making it undeniable that it was Avraham who begat him. Not only was “Yitzchak the son of Avraham,” but everyone acknowledged that: “Avraham begat Yitzchak.”

b) The Midrash3 explains the redundance as follows: “Yitzchak the son of Avraham” indicates that Yitzchak took pride in Avraham. “Avraham begat Yitzchak” indicates that Avraham took pride in Yitzchak.

c) In Chassidus,4 it is explained that the Divine service of Avraham centered on the attributes of kindness and love, while the Divine service of Yitzchak centered on the attributes of might and fear.

More particularly, the paths of both love and fear each contain a lower and a higher level. The lower level of fear involves the fear of transgressing G‑d’s will because of the punishment one will receive for sinning. On a deeper level, it means fearing the negative consequences of sin.

The higher level of fear is the awe of G‑d’s majesty; a person is ashamed to commit a sin because of his awareness of G‑d’s majesty. On this level, one fears sin itself, for all sin is against G‑d’s will.5

Similarly, with regard to the two levels of love. The lower level, referred to as “diminutive love,” refers to the love a person feels for G‑d as a result of his personal satisfaction, either with material things or, on a more refined level, with spiritual blessings. The higher level of love, “abundant love,” refers to a love for G‑d which motivates one to fulfill His will without thought of reward, and without consideration for one’s own good.

“The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants.”6 With the verse cited above, the Torah thus indicates that every Jew’s Divine service involves two dimensions resulting from Avraham, i.e., two levels of love, and two dimensions resulting from Yitzchak, two levels of fear.

The lower levels of love and fear are revealed before the higher levels, as reflected in our Sages’ statement:7 “A person should always involve himself in the Torah and its mitzvos for an improper intent” i.e., seeking his own benefit (the motivation for the lower levels of love and fear) “for from [Divine service] for an improper intent comes [Divine service] for the proper intent” the higher levels of love and fear.

Moreover, as explained in Chassidus,8 the order of the names in the verse alludes to the sequence in which these rungs of Divine service are usually reached. The initial level is associated with Yitzchak the lower level of fear and then one proceeds to Avraham, the lower level of love. Afterwards, Avraham is mentioned a second time, alluding to the higher level of love, and then a second mention is made of Yitzchak, alluding to the higher level of fear.

This serves as a directive for every Jew. We must serve G‑d with both love and fear.9 This is also reflected in our Sages’ statement:10 “Only three are referred to as Patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.” They are cosidered the ancestors of the entire Jewish people, because each imparts the attribute which is his spiritual heritage to every one of his descendants.

The 12 tribes also reflect fundamental paths in Divine service, but it is not necessary for every Jew to express each of these paths. Every Jew follows the path that characterizes the tribe from which he descends, and does not necessarily share in the Divine service of the other tribes. With regard to the Patriarchs, by contrast, every Jew must embrace the attributes passed on by each of the Patriarchs.

If a person follows only one path either love without fear, or fear without love this is not service. By nature, every person has a tendency towards either kindness or might;11 by following that one path, he is merely expressing his natural disposition. Service means going beyond one’s natural tendencies,12 and involving both emotional thrusts.

A fourth interpretation of the above verse stems from the Midrash Nealam in the Zohar,13 which states that Avraham alludes to the soul. {In this context, the Zohar14 explains that Sarah’s death alludes to the decomposition of the body into the four elements of existence. Thus in the verse:15 “And Sarah died in Kiryas Arba, which is Chebron, in the land of Canaan,” Sarah serves an allusion to the body, and Kiryas Arba (lit. “the village of the four”) is a reference to the four elements. While Sarah lived in “the land of Canaan,” i.e., our material world, these four elements are joined together (chibur, joining together, shares the same root as Chebron). Afterwards,16 when “Avraham rose from beside his dead,” the soul, which is above death and decomposition, ascends.}

In this context, Yitzchak stands for laughter and pleasure, which in the ultimate sense refers to the pleasure which the soul will experience in the Era of the Redemption. On this basis, we can understand the above verse: “Yitzchak, the son of Avraham” teaches us that the soul (Avraham) will merit pleasure (Yitzchak) in the Era of the Redemption. Why will the soul merit such revelations? Because “Avraham begat Yitzchak”; through its Divine service in this world, the soul has generated the pleasure which it will experience in the Era of the Redemption.

Seeking a Common Factor

As explained on a previous occasion, whenever our Sages have offered several interpretations of a verse, these varying understandings all share a point of connection. To cite an allusion to this concept: Our Sages17 interpret the word shaatnez as a conglomerate of three terms: shua (straightened, combed), tevei (spun), and nuz (woven). And they explain that because the Torah combines all three terms in one word, they share a connection. As such, according to Scriptural law,18 the prohibition against shaatnez (the combination of wool and linen) involves all three of these phases: spinning these fabrics into thread together, weaving a garment from this combined thread, and then combing it out so that its surface is flat. A person is not liable for transgressing this prohibition if he wears a garment which was made by performing only one or two of these activities. It is only when all three activities were involved in making the garment that Scriptural law holds him liable.

Thus we see that the combination of different letters in one word although each has a different meaning points to a connection between them. Similarly and to a greater extent, when considering the verse above since all four interpretations are derived from the same letters, there is surely a connection between them.

This connection can be explained by focusing on the mandate for our conduct which results from each interpretation, for indeed every narrative of the Torah provides us with lessons to be applied in our lives.19 According to Chassidus, the directive is obvious: as stated above, every person must carry out his Divine service inspired by feelings of both love and fear. And moreover, this interpretation points out the stages of progress to the desired levels of love and fear.

Similarly, from the interpretation of the Zohar, one can appreciate why the Torah tells us: “And these are the chronicles of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak.” For it is important for us to know that through Divine service, a soul can draw down pleasure, and that the pleasure which is drawn down will be revealed in the Era of the Redemption. Awareness of the reward generated by the performance of a mitzvah facilitates the mitzvah’s observance, and infuses our Divine service with vitality.

With regard to the first two interpretations mentioned above, however, the implication for our Divine service is not as apparent. What is the relevance of the fact that Avraham’s contemporaries gossiped that Yitzchak was not Avraham’s son (and therefore G‑d caused Yitzchak’s countenance to resemble Avraham’s)? And what can we learn from the fact that Yitzchak took pride in Avraham and Avraham took pride in Yitzchak?

Beyond Nature’s Boundaries

The latter two questions can be resolved by focusing on the fact that both the interpretation offered by the Talmud and that offered by the Midrash reflect transcendent influences. According to the laws of nature, Avraham was physically incapable of fathering children.20 Moreover, even the sources of influence in the spiritual realms (the mazalos) reflected this incapacity. Thus our Sages interpret21 the verse:22 “And He took him outside,” to mean that G‑d told Avraham: “Go out from your astrological predictions.” And indeed, for Avraham to father children required that G‑d take him beyond the limits of ordinary spiritual influences.

Similarly, the fact that Avraham could take pride in Yitzchak reflects an influence which surpasses nature. For according to the natural pattern of entropy, there is an inherent motive toward spiritual decline; each successive generation descends in spiritual level. Thus our Sages comment:23 “If the men of the earlier generations were like angels, we can be considered as men.”

For Avraham to take pride in Yitzchak’s greatness is therefore unnatural. Since Yitzchak was born into a later generation, the fact that he had positive qualities which enhanced the perfection of Avraham reflects a transcendent influence. (This concept is amplified by the literal meaning of the Midrash’s words: “Avraham was crowned by Yitzchak.” For a crown makes the person who wears it appear more attractive. In the same way, Yitzchak’s spiritual qualities complemented and enhanced those possessed by Avraham.)

On this basis, we can appreciate the lesson derived from these passages. Every Jew must realize that he is not bound by the limitations of nature. And this does not apply only to spiritual matters, but to material existence as well.

Even before Yitzchak was born, Avraham had left a spiritual posterity. As our Sages comment:24 “Good deeds are the progeny of righteous men.” And this is particularly true according to the teachings of the Kabbalah,25 which explain that a marital union in the spirit of the Torah always conceives spiritual progeny.

With the birth of Yitzchak, it became manifest that, even with regard to leaving material progeny, Avraham was not bound by the limitations of nature.

The “mockers of the generation,”26 will come and say: “Sarah conceived with Avimelech,” i.e., in every era, those who counter the forces of holiness27 will come to a Jew with a complaint: “When it comes to spiritual things, you have room for accomplishment, for these matters are not controlled by the rules of nature. But when it comes to material affairs such as the fathering of actual children, this is possible only through the medium of Avimelech. You have to accept the jurisdiction of the king or the ruling authority28 of the nation, for all material influence is dependent on him. It’s true that he is only a medium, but still, he is the medium through which this influence passes.”29

G‑d works a special miracle to refute this argument. He causes Yitzchak’s countenance to resemble that of Avraham, so that it is obvious to all that “Avraham begat Yitzchak.” This proves that even a Jew’s material posterity does not come from Avimelech, but from Avraham.

And this concept is enhanced by the interpretation of the Zohar, which explains that Avraham refers to the soul. When a Jew arouses the powers of his soul and does not allow himself to be hindered by the body and his animal soul, his future even in a physical and material sense is not dependent on the laws of nature.

Even Our Material Concerns are above the Control of Natural Forces

On this basis, we can comprehend the words of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe:30

All the nations which are on the face of the earth must know that it is only our bodies which have been placed in exile, and under the dominion of other nations. Our souls have never been driven into exile, nor have they been placed under the dominion of other nations.

We must proclaim openly, so that all will know: When it comes to matters involving our faith, the Torah, its mitzvos, and Jewish custom, there is no [worldly] authority controlling us. And no means of compulsion will be [successfully] used against us.

The Rebbe’s statements seemingly require explanation: The soul is enclothed in a body and must observe the Torah and its mitzvos with the material entities of this world. Since our bodies are in exile, of what avail is it that “our souls are not in exile”?

The resolution of this question depends on the concept explained above: that the arousal of the soul also affects the body and the material concerns with which it is involved, causing them as well to be above exile and the dominion of other nations.

This concept must be publicized in a manner that causes “All the nations which are on the face of the earth [to] know.” Indeed, even the “mockers of the generation” must be brought to the realization that they have no control over even the material influences which affect a Jew’s life.

The Interrelation of the Four Interpretations

On the basis of the above concepts, we can comprehend the connection shared by the interpretations mentioned in the Talmud, the Midrash, the Zohar, and Chassidus.

The Talmud, the fundamental text of Nigleh, the revealed dimensions of Torah law, interprets the verse in a way which relates to affairs as they exist in our world. On that level, there exist “the mockers of the generation,” and to refute their claims, the Torah teaches us that even a Jew’s material affairs are not bound by the limits of nature.

The Midrash (the realm of Aggadah)31 is an intermediary between the revealed dimensions of the Torah and its inner, mystic dimensions. Therefore, the Midrash speaks about the same concept that a Jew is not bound by the limitations of nature on a higher level, indicating that a Jew stands above the limitations that characterize Seder Hahishtalshelus, the chainlike progression of spiritual realms.

The fact that every subsequent generation represents a further spiritual descent reflects the natural order of spiritual existence. The Jewish people, however, are not bound by this pattern. On the contrary, “Grandchildren are the crown of the elders.”32 A crown rests above the head. For Jews, children are able to elevate their parents and grandparents. This reflects a level above the limitations of Seder HaHishtalshelus.

(This explains why the Midrash does not address itself to the assertions of the mockers and others who stem from the forces of evil. The Midrash is speaking about a level of spiritual reality at which there is no place for such assertions, and no need to respond to them.)

Chassidus places an emphasis on showing us paths to follow in our Divine service. As such, it clarifies the pattern of spiritual growth which will enable a person to rise above the limitations of nature and Seder HaHishtalshelus. When a Jew serves G‑d with two emotions, love and fear, and combines them, he alters the natural tendency of these emotions. For it is only in one’s Divine service that such a fusion is possible;33 otherwise, love and fear tend to remain separate.

When a person follows the teachings of Chassidus, and rises above his natural emotional tendencies, G‑d responds by showering the person with spiritual influence that transcends the limits of nature. This applies with regard to one’s spiritual levels (which relates to the interpretation of the Midrash) and also with regard to one’s material affairs (as reflected in the interpretation of the Talmud).

The Zohar, the mystical dimension of the Torah, shares a connection with and reveals what will take place in the Era of the Redemption. Thus it relates that through the Divine service implied by “And these are the chronicles of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham begat Yitzchak” as reflected in each of the three interpretations mentioned previously, a Jew merits the revelation of sublime pleasure.

The Ultimate Reward

In Chassidus,34 the Mishnah’s teaching:35 “The reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah, ” is interpreted simply. The reward for a mitzvah is not an element added to the mitzvah ; it is the mitzvah itself. This dimension of the mitzvos will be revealed in the Era of the Redemption.

This amplifies the connection between the interpretation of the Zohar , which focuses on the reward we will receive for our Divine service, and the other three interpretations, which focus on the performance of that service. For “the reward for the mitzvos ” is not a separate entity, but rather “the mitzvah itself.”

The Sublime Pleasure of the Era of the Redemption

At the naming of Yitzchak, Sarah exclaimed:36 “G‑d has created laughter for me.” Chassidus37 focuses on the fact that the name of G‑d employed by this verse is אלקים (Elokim), which refers to the Divine attribute of concealment, as alluded to in the verse:38 “As the sun and its shield, are הוי' (Havayah) and אלקים ,” i.e., the two names Havayah and Elokim are compared to the sun and its shield. Havayah, like the sun, serves as a source of energy. And Elokim resembles the shield which covers that light. For Elokim is numerically equivalent to the word HaTevah (הטבע),39 and nature conceals G‑dliness.

Nevertheless, through refining and elevating the different elements of nature that conceal G‑dliness, one fulfills the Divine intent of transforming this world into a dwelling for Him. And thus, “אלקים has created laughter for me”; this Divine service arouses pleasure above.

Man is created in the image of G‑d.40 Thus he possesses a body and soul which parallel Havayah and Elokim.41 The neshamah parallels the name Havayah, and the body which conceals the soul parallels the name Elokim. Here as well, it is the refinement of the body, that resembles Elokim, which arouses pleasure in the spiritual realms. For it is through these efforts that G‑d’s intent in creation is fulfilled.

Since G‑d’s intent lies in the refinement of the body, in the Era of the Redemption the body will be on a higher level than the soul. Moreover, in contrast to the present situation, in which the body receives its life-energy from the soul, in that era, the soul will derive its life-energy from the body.42

Nevertheless, since it is the soul which refines the body, the soul will also receive its reward, and in the Era of the Redemption will also partake of the sublime pleasure generated by its Divine service with the body.43

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between the interpretation of the Zohar, which deals with the reward we will receive for our Divine service, and the other three interpretations, which focus on the Divine service itself. Our Divine service centers on the achievements of the soul within the body, lifting the body above the limitations of nature. And through this service, the soul generates pleasure which transcends the body “Avraham begat Yitzchak.”

For this service, the soul will receive a reward in the Era of the Redemption. It will partake of the sublime pleasure which it generated, as reflected in the phrase “Yitzchak the son of Avraham.”

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Mevorchim Kislev, 5721)