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The Great Man Theory (Toldot)

It’s been suggested that history is really just the study of his story. This, at least, was the position of Victorian philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who, in the nineteenth century, boldly asserted that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” When we study the events of the past by focusing on the actions of celebrated individuals like Washington, Napoleon, and Gandhi, we apply to history what historiographers call the “Great Man theory” – the theory which Carlyle so aptly describes.

In many respects, the first volume of the Torah reads in precisely this way. From Adam, to Eve, to Cain, to Abel, to Noah, to Abraham, to Sarah, to Isaac, to Rebecca, to Jacob, to Rachel, and, finally, to Joseph, the book of Genesis shifts from one “great man” or “great woman” to the next, paying, it seems, very little attention to the average Joes along the way. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that the first two-thousand years of world history produced no more than a dozen individuals worth talking about.

When we take a closer look, though, we realize that some of these “heroes” aren’t heroes at all – certainly not according to the conventional definition, as laid down in Joseph Campbell’s well-known “hero’s journey.” Isaac, in particular, stands out as a patriarch who didn’t do anything all that innovative in his lifetime. After all: Abraham’s biography spans fourteen chapters (Genesis 12–25); Jacob’s biography, if we’re being liberal about it, spans twenty-four chapters (Genesis 27–50); but Isaac’s biography spans only one chapter (Genesis 26).

In a sense, then, Isaac appears to live life in the shadow of his father. As Dr. Yael Zeigler observes in her fascinating online lecture:

  • The verse which introduces Isaac’s biography reminds the reader – twice! – that Abraham was his father.
  • When God establishes a covenant with Isaac, He emphasizes that He is doing so because Isaac’s father, Abraham, had done so previously.
  • Isaac, like Abraham, is forced to move to Philistia due to a famine in Canaan – and when recounting Isaac’s journey to Philistia, the text makes a point of mentioning that Abraham had undertaken a similar one.
  • During his time in Philistia, Isaac’s wife is nearly abducted by Abimelech, the Philistine king, who thought she was Isaac’s sister. The same thing happened to Abraham.
  • Isaac, like Abraham, makes peace with Abimelech.
  • Isaac spends his life re-digging the wells which his father, Abraham, had dug, even giving them the names which his father had given them. In fact, this is the only significant event of Isaac’s short biography.
  • Isaac’s first spoken word is אבי, “my father,” and his last is אברהם, “Abraham.”

For Dr. Zeigler (as, indeed, for most commentators), Isaac plays the role of the “continuer.” As Zeigler puts it, Abraham functions as the visionary, whereas his son, Isaac, is blind – figuratively, is not responsible for envisioning any new philosophy, only for sustaining the existent one.

Other scholars take a slightly different approach. In one particularly compelling essay (highly recommended for further reading!), R. Amnon Bazak argues that the similarities between Abraham and Isaac only serve to highlight their differences. On this reading, Isaac doesn’t just sustain his father’s legacy, but also advances it further, fixing Abraham’s mistakes and tending to the tasks which his father failed to complete. To that end, I find it interesting to note that the name of the character who serves as Isaac’s foil, “Abimelech,” literally means “my father was king.” Apparently, Abimelech’s main claim to fame is the status of his father. Isaac, by contrast, understands that he can participate in the covenantal family without losing a sense of his own identity.

Of course, it’s no accident that the Torah portion which tells the story of Isaac happens to be named “תולדות:” “genealogy,” “generations,” or, more loosely, “continuity.” No matter how you view Isaac, there can be no question that he’s being set up by our text as an archetype for what R. Adin Steinsaltz calls “the second generation.” In R. Steinsaltz’s words:

In all the significant revolutions in history, it is evident that the first generation – the revolutionaries themselves or the “founding fathers” – usually have to struggle against formidable objective forces and circumstances. But the verdict of history concerning their success, whether it was a glorious victory or merely a passing episode, lies with their successors – the generation who have to fix and stabilize the revolution… One does not ascribe to the second generation the same glorious qualities that capture the imagination; [yet] Isaac’s achievement amounts to more than a mere contribution. By virtue of Isaac, Abraham is made what he is.

Let us, then, respectfully disagree with Carlyle. History is not “his” story; it is their story – it is, indeed, our story. When we’re very young, and somewhat less mature, we tend to think that our lives will only have meaning if, after our one-hundred and twenty years on this earth are up, we leave behind accomplishments so great and so grand that they’ll still be talking about them a thousand years hence. But that’s a very narrow view of history, and a very limiting view of humanity.

Through Isaac, the Torah presents another option. Taking nothing away from the value of creativity, innovation, and self-actualization, our tradition reminds us that we’re not alone, nor must we build our legacies alone.  If, as we spoke about last week, we’re open to the possibility of casting our identities in terms of the collective to which we belong – and not just in terms of our selves – then our lives become part of a larger story: a story which we help write, and which, in turn, provides context for, and meaning to, that which we leave behind.

Shabbat shalom!

This week’s “Short Thoughts” published in merit of a רפואה שלמה for ברינדל שושנה בת רינה דבורה


  1. Jordana says:

    Excellent article!

  2. Sarah says:

    Very good analysis!

  3. Daniel Nathan Liss says:

    This was quite good. Enjoyed your analysis.

  4. Joel says:

    Very nice idea

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