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Parshat Toldot: Isaac - Abraham's Hidden Self
“These are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac.” So begins our parshah this week. Immediately one is struck by the seemingly duplicate wording: “Isaac the son of Abraham” and “Abraham gave birth to Isaac.” What is the difference between the two? Different answers have been offered by the Midrash, the Talmud, and others.1
In this article, we will add an additional explanation of the difference that is based on all that has been said before by the various commentaries. This explanation touches upon some of the most important concepts in the Chassidic interpretation of Kabbalah and will provide us with valuable lessons for coping with one of life’s most frustrating difficulties.
Intellectual, Emotional, and Behavioral
Let us begin with a most general statement. The first part of the verse: “Isaac the son of Abraham” describes Isaac as Abraham’s son in nature and behavior. But, the second phrase “Abraham gave birth to Isaac,” comes to tell us that Abraham willfully gave also his emotional and intellectual traits to Isaac.
To understand this statement we need to introduce the tripartite division of the sefirot into intellectual, emotional, and behavioral (or natural), as follows:2
- Intellectual: wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.
- Emotional: loving-kindness, might, and beauty.
- Behavioral: victory, acknowledgment, and foundation.
Before the advent of Chassidut, the division of the sefirot into three such groups of three was well-known, but the nomenclature for addressing each group was based on the initials of the sefirot. Thus, the first group is known as חַבַּ"ד (chabad); the second group is known as חַגַ"ת (chagat); and the third group is known as נֶהִ"י (nehi).3 In Hebrew, these three categories are known as מוּשְׂכַּל (intellectual), מוּרְגַשׁ (emotional), and מוּטְבַּע (behavioral).
Natural Essences of Abraham and Isaac
In their nature, Abraham and Isaac were complete opposites. Abraham’s nature stemmed from elemental water, the archetypal source of the sefirah of loving-kindness, of which he is the archetypal soul. Isaac’s nature was that of the elemental fire, the archetypal soul of the sefirah of might, of which Isaac is the archetypal soul. Because of Abraham’s elemental root he is described by the sages as being drawn to God like water. Isaac’s elemental root in fire is related to his binding and his likeness to a perfect sacrifice that was to be consumed as all sacrifices are consumed by the fire of the altar.
Since we will use the correspondence between the sefirot and the four elements later this week, let us present it in its complete form:
Natural Birth vs. Conscious Rebirth
How could Abraham, who was water, give birth to Isaac who was fire? The answer is that in most cases, the natural process of birth reveals the hidden, but present traits that the parent possesses; traits that the parent usually only ever so slightly experiences in the depth of the psyche because they are hidden, but are nonetheless present. Having children is thus a revelatory and exploratory experience for the parents who see something of themselves, which they may have thought was lost, or would never be expressed in their own lives, suddenly taking on a life of its own in the form of their child’s character. We call this a natural process because it is done entirely without volition or consciousness. In other words, the latent but present characteristics that make up the natural character of the child originate in the habitual sefirot of the parent. Isaac’s fire-like character was already present, though concealed, in Abraham.
But, the second phrase “Abraham gave birth to Isaac,” implies a second birth, one that unlike the first transferred Abraham’s conscious character—associated with his emotional and intellectual sefirot—to Isaac’s own emotions and intellect.
The Hidden Self
The application of this idea to our everyday lives has to do with those things which we seem to project but feel do not truly reflect who we are. For instance, there are people who are frustrated because they seem to encourage animosity or fear in others, while they see themselves as kind and gentle people. If you experience such frustration, or anything similar to it, you ask yourself, why is it that I give off these negative vibes, while I myself am really such a positive person? It might be that you see yourself as a loving and caring individual, but at the same time feel that for some reason people seem to be threatened by you. “How can this be?” you ask yourself.” The answer is that you harbor some latent but very present character “genes” that are only revealed in your offspring, that is in the way you express yourself. To yourself you seem to be the very opposite from the way you come off. What can one do in this very familiar situation?
The answer is that the lack of control you have over these latent character traits is a result of their remaining unconscious and you not being able to exercise any volition over them. To remedy the situation, to express these genes in a positive way, you have to transform their birth process, their expression, into one that is consciously intellectual and emotionally revealed. Then you can express these latent genes in the right context, in a place where they will have a positive and constructive influence. For example, there are times when people should feel threatened by you, even if you in your essence a loving and caring individual. If you can consciously express your might in a positive context, it will no longer need to find its own means of expression causing you surprise and embarrassment. Such control is called "mature mind" (מוֹחִין דְגַדְלוּת ) in Kabbalah. Expression, as it is anticipated by the mature mind is implied in the words: “Abraham gave birth to Isaac.”
Isaac’s Hidden Self in Jacob
What was Isaac’s latent gene? Clearly, this was Jacob. Indeed, in gematria, Jacob (יַעֲקֹב ) is equal to the word for "offspring" (צֶאֶצַא ). This Hebrew word is spelled with the same two letters, צא , repeated. צֵא means “go out,” in Hebrew. Therefore, the Hebrew word for “offspring” can be understood as implying to “comings out.” The first צֵא , coming out, refers to the natural, unconscious expression of one’s latent character; the second צֵא , coming out, refers to the intellectually and emotionally conscious expression of one’s latent character traits.
When Jacob was צֵא = 91 years old, he gave birth to Joseph, the archetypal soul of the sefirah of foundation, which like Jacob’s sefirah of beauty lies on the middle axis of the sefirot. Joseph was particularly similar to Jacob. In the Zohar we find that the body, which corresponds to the sefirah of beauty and the male procreative organ, which corresponds to the sefirah of foundation are considered as one.4 Still, the sefirah of beauty leans somewhat to the right while the sefirah of foundation leans a little to the left, indicating the connection between the generations: Jacob is connected to Abraham and Joseph is connected to Isaac, showing once more how the latent traits can be completely opposite to the revealed essence.
The Ark Gives Birth to Noah, Twice
The first time that we find this twofold process of expression is in relation to Noach. After almost a full year in the ark, God commanded Noah: “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you….” The Hebrew text, the word for “come out” is צֵא and the word for “bring out” is הוֹצֵא , which is a derivative of צֵא . Thus, “come out” is a natural process void of special intent. But, “bring out” is a conscious and purposeful process.
Amazingly, even the word הוֹצֵא alludes to the intellectual and emotional sefirot. The word is written הַיְצֵא but is read הוֹצֵא , thus stressing the three letters that change between the written and oral forms of the word: יהו . These are also the three letters of God’s essential Name, Havayah that refer to the sefirot of wisdom (י ), understanding (ה ) and beauty (ו ).
(Based on the Daily Dvar Torah from Monday, 23rd Cheshvan, 5768 – November 4, 2007)
1. For some of these answers and how they correspond to the 4 aspects of Torah methodology, see Likutei Sichot (Hebrew), v. 3, pp. 33-9.
2. See also What You Need to Know About Kabbalah, pp. ???.
3. As discussed in our earlier teachings, these three groupings form the basis of the Arizal’s description of the enclothement of one partzuf within another, whereby the lower three sefirot, the nehi of the higher partzuf are enclothed within the higher three sefirot, the chabad, of the lower partzuf. There are many exceptions to this formula, but this is its best known form. Additonally, each group of three sefirot represents another state of maturity in the development of a partzuf.
4. Tikunei Zohar 69 (106a). See also Zohar I, 153b-154a.