The Sidra of Toledot begins with an account of the generation of “Isaac the son of Abraham,” and adds, “Abraham begat Isaac.” Why the repetition? The Rebbe quotes four explanations, each of a different kind, each representing a different level of Biblical interpretation.
Each is apparently unconnected with any of the others, but the Rebbe explores them in depth and shows their inner relation to one another—demonstrating, by this example, the essential unity of the various ways of understanding the Torah.
1. The Four Explanations
Our Sidra begins with the words, “And these were the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham: Abraham begat Isaac.”1 The commentators on the Torah ask the immediate question, why does the verse repeat itself in telling us that Abraham begat Isaac?
Among the various answers given are the following:
(i) The Talmud2 (and the Midrash3) say that the cynics of the time were casting aspersions on Abraham’s parentage of Isaac (Sarah had lived childless with Abraham for many years; and yet she bore Isaac only after she had been forcibly taken by Abimelech).4 Therefore, G-d made Isaac facially identical with Abraham so that everyone should recognize that he was indeed Abraham’s son. The double expression of the verse gives testimony to this fact.
(ii) The Midrash5 comments: “Isaac was crowned with Abraham and Abraham was crowned with Isaac.” Each was the other’s pride.
(iii) The Chassidic explanation6is that Abraham is a figure, or paradigm, of the service of love and kindness, while Isaac is the exemplar of fear and strictness. Each of these poles of worship has two levels. There is the lower fear, which is adherence for fear of punishment for sin, or for any harm that may befall one as a result of sin, while the higher fear is a sense of awe in the face of the majesty of G-d, and a withdrawal from sin because it is against G-d’s will.
The lower love is an attachment to G-d for the ulterior motive of reward, whether material or spiritual. But the higher love is independent of any desire for personal benefit, and is simply a cleaving to G-d for its own sake.
The verse, in its apparent repetition, is teaching us something about the relation of these four forms of service. The order of the names (Isaac, Abraham, Abraham, Isaac) tells us that the order of the worship of G-d starts with the lower fear, ascends to the lower love, and then to the higher love, and finally reaches its highest point in the higher fear.7 The lower begets the higher, for though one starts by worshipping G-d for ulterior motives, one eventually comes to do it for its own sake.8 And this applies to all Jews (that they must serve G-d with both love and fear9), for Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are called the “Fathers” of the Jewish people, meaning that all their descendants have inherited their capacities and the obligation to use them.
(iv) The Zohar10 explains that Abraham stands symbolically for the soul (and Sarah, for the body. For the Torah says, “And Sarah died,”11 meaning the body, which is mortal; while about Abraham it is written “And Abraham arose above the face of his dead,”12 alluding to the soul, which transcends death). Isaac, whose name means “laughing” or “rejoicing,” stands for the pleasures which the soul will have in the world to come. So the verse, thus translated, reads: “Pleasure will be the reward to the soul” (“Isaac, the son of Abraham”) in the world to come, if “the soul begets pleasures (“Abraham begat Isaac”) by its service in this world.
2. The Inner Unity
There is a general principle that when different interpretations are given to one and the same verse in the Torah, they are connected, even though superficially they seem to bear no relation to each other.
A proof of this is that the Rabbis13 explain that the word “shaatnez” (the forbidden mixture of wool and linen) is a fusion of three words: “shuah” (combed), “tavui” (spun), and “nuz” (woven); and argue14 that since the Torah combines these into one word it intends that a cloth must have all three properties before the Torah declares it shaatnez (i.e., that the wool and linen must be combed, spun and woven together). If we learn from the fusion of separate letters into one word that all three terms are connected, a fortiori must different explanations be connected if they are attached to the selfsame letters in Torah.
What is the relation between our four explanations?
All the stories of Torah have moral implication directly relevant to the life of each Jew.15 And we can readily understand the moral of the Chassidic explanation above. It is that a Jew must serve G-d with both poles of his emotional responses: Love and fear. The implication of the Zohar’s interpretation is that by the this-worldly service of the Jew’s embodied soul he creates spiritual pleasures which will be revealed to him in the world to come, and by recognizing this, his whole manner of service takes on a new life.
But what of the interpretations of the Talmud and the Midrash—which on the face of it have no immediate relevance to us?
The connection between these two is that both relate events which were out of the ordinary course of nature.
If nature had obeyed its physical laws, Abraham could not have had a child: He and his wife were old and barren. This is why when G-d told him he would bear a son, the Torah says: “He brought him outside,”16 which the Rabbis17 translate: “Break away from your astrological speculations,” in which Abraham had foreseen that he would be childless.
And if the evolution of the spirit had taken its ordinary course (whereby succeeding generations diminish in spiritual stature; as the Rabbis18 say, “If the earlier Jews were sons of angels, then we are sons of men, etc.”) then Abraham would not have been “crowned” in Isaac. For this implied that Isaac completed and complemented his father’s service, and supplied an element which Abraham himself lacked.
So both these explanations convey to us the profound fact that a Jew may transcend the constraints of natural law, not only in spiritual matters, but in material matters as well.
Abraham had, as it were, spiritual offspring before Isaac, for “the offspring of the righteous are their good works.”19 But the birth of Isaac proved that even in the physical domain miraculous events attended him.
And this is the real refutation of the “cynics of the generation.” For their claim was (in depth) that though they conceded that a Jew might transcend limitations in the spiritual realms, to produce an effect in the physical world required the temporal power of the secular rulers (the claim that Abimelech was the father of Isaac); i.e., in material affairs he is subject to natural law.
In making Isaac facially resemble Abraham, G-d made his true parentage apparent to all, showing that the channel of physical power was Abraham (the soul, to follow the Zohar’s reading) not Abimelech (the worldly ruler). The soul has no hindrances, either in itself or when it seeks to translate the devotion into action.
3. The Soul’s Freedom
This leads us to an understanding of the words of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe):20
“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of (foreign) rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.
“We must say openly before all, that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the commandments and the customs of Israel, we Jews have no-one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us.”
This is, on the face of it, paradoxical, for what advantage is it if the soul is free so long as the body is in exile, and the soul must fulfill G-d’s will through the body in the physical world?
But in fact, such is the strength of the soul’s arousal that it can remove the body from its servitude to physical constraints. And this must be done openly so that “all the people on the face of the earth” (including the “cynics of the generation”) should see that Abimelech (worldly power) has no domain over the Jew either in body or in soul.
4. Service and Reward
The connection between the four interpretations is now clear.
The Talmud belongs to the “revealed” part of Torah, so it addresses itself to the skepticism which can arise here in this “revealed” physical world, answering the challenge of the “cynics” by showing that even at a material level a Jew is not subject to the constraints of nature.
The Midrash is an intermediate link between Torah’s “revealed” and “inward” aspects,21 so it treats the subject in the same way as the Talmud, and also gives a deeper explanation, showing that a Jew transcends nature, also the normal (“natural”) spiritual order. He stands aside from the progressive decline of the human spirit, so that “the crown of the old is their grandchildren”22—the later generations perfect the service of the earlier. (And since the Midrash, in this, its second comment, speaks from a level in which cynicism has no place, it has no cause to answer it in the way that the Talmud does.)
Chassidut—which explains the path of service of G-d—also takes us into the realm of “higher than nature.” Its moral was that each Jew must serve G-d with love and fear together. Now, normally these are incompatible emotions—love means drawing near; fear is the consciousness of a distance separating. But in worship of G-d the Jew transcends the natural movement of his feelings and can fuse these two opposite responses23 in a unique involvement of his whole being. When he does this, he is set apart by Heaven from the course of nature, both physically (as in the Talmud’s interpretation) and spiritually (as in the Midrash).
The Zohar, which expresses the esoteric aspect of Torah, speaks of the world to come, and explains that by a Jew’s efforts in this world to let his soul break through the bounds of embodied existence, he is rewarded by the spiritual delights of the future life.
5. The Reward is the Act
To take this further, it is said24 that “the reward of a Mitzvah (commandment) is a Mitzvah”; that is, the reward lies in the act itself, and not in the later and additional pleasure. For, in the world to come, what is granted to the Jew is not an incidental consequence of his good works, but is the good works themselves, revealed in their true character. For now, possessed of a body, he does not perceive the inner spiritual reality of an act of doing G-d’s will. In the afterlife he does, and this is his reward.
The first three explanations speak about the act of performing a Mitzvah, while the Zohar directs itself to the reward. But since the reward is the act, we can see a closer unity between all four.
6.The Service of the Body,
The Reward of the Soul
Isaac was so called because the name means “rejoice,” and Sarah said, when he was born to her in her old age, “G-d had made rejoicing for me.”25 Now the name of G-d used in this verse is Elokim, which is usually taken to refer to G-d’s imminence in nature (“Elokim” is, in fact, numerically equivalent to the Hebrew word for nature), which serves to conceal the four-lettered name which stands for G-d’s transcendence. And there is a Chassidic explanation that the verse means “rejoicing has come from my service of sanctifying nature.” That is, that in the physical world is hidden the imminent presence of G-d. And by dedicating one’s acts in holiness, one draws out this presence into openness and revelation, which is the Divine purpose in creation, causing G-d Himself to rejoice.
Man, who was created in the image of G-d, also has, as it were, both imminent and transcendent aspects26—the body and the soul respectively. And as G-d rejoices through our sanctification of the world, so He rejoices in our sanctification of the body, for this is the fulfillment of the Divine purpose.
And while now it is the soul which gives life to the body, in the world to come it will be the body which will be the giver of life to the soul. For the purpose of creation is realized by refinement of the body, and since the soul is the force which refines the body, it will therefore share in the pleasure created through its effect on the body.
This, then, is the ultimate connection between the four interpretations. The first three speak of man’s service, of how the soul lifts the body out of its natural constraints, and by transforming nature into manifest holiness brings pleasure to G-d (“Abraham begat Isaac,” or “the soul creates pleasures”). As a result, the soul is rewarded by these very pleasures in the world to come—the concern of the Zohar—when “Isaac is the son of Abraham,” or, “the soul receives its pleasures” in return.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 780-7)