People can come in very surprising packages


If you would have asked me what Abir would end up doing with his life, I would have imagined him as a bouncer.

Abir, an ex-paratrooper, is one of the unsung heroes of the battle of the Chinese chicken farm, when a battalion of paratroopers in the Yom Kippur war had to take a crucial Egyptian position by running up 300 yards of open ground; most of the battalion never made it out of there. I could easily have imagined him grabbing one of the first planes out after the war, maybe to New York or Los Angeles.

But you can still find Abir tucked away in the art gallery he owns called the Olive Tree in the Old City of Jerusalem opposite the Cardo. He is one of those personalities described in books as ‘larger than life’, tall, dark, and handsome, with a robust, deep laugh and a twinkle in his eye, and it still amazes me to see how much pleasure he takes from the quiet solitude of his gallery; he almost seems to draw the energy out of the walls.

His gallery, just like its owner, reads like a book you can’t put down.

Abir buys Roman glass from the heyday of the Roman Empire, transforming it into Jewish ritual pieces (such as Mezuzot, candlesticks, and Saturday night havdalah spice sets). His sales pitch: “Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire destroyed my city, burned my Temple, and exiled my people. Today you cannot find a real Roman of that empire anywhere in the world, but I, a Jew, live here in a Jewish State and make a living from their remains!” 

For reasons Abir himself cannot fully explain, this adventurous soul, whom one might have expected to find exploring the world, chose instead to explore his own backyard. It would have been so easy, after all the tragedy of his war-time experiences, for Abir to have left this land behind long ago, yet here he still sits, crafting his glass and soaking up the history of an ancient land that seeps out through his very pores. 

How and why do some people seem to change direction almost mid-stream? What allows some of us to connect to our true mission in life?

• • •

One of the less-noticed verses in this week’s portion of Toldot affords us a unique opportunity to gain insight into this question.

Yitzchak (Isaac) is all about following in the footsteps of his father Abraham, trying to do everything his father did. He even digs the same exact wells his father dug, re-claiming these wells as his property by digging them up anew. (26:18)

While there is much to say about the striking similarities between Avraham and Yitzchak’s lives, the difference between Yitzchak and Abraham may be very simple: Avraham was the first; the beginning; Yitzchak was the one who had to follow up; he was the continuation. These are two entirely different roles, each with their challenges and difficulties, and represent different parts of the process, which can best be described as the creation of the nation that will become the Jewish people. 

Avraham arrives on the world scene as a lone voice in a very lonely desert; the world is a morass of pagan idolatry, which believes in many gods, and worships the world of nature. Avraham’s mission is to introduce to the world the idea that there is one G-d who created the world and that there is,therefore, one objective ethic which can guide the world to peace and coexistence. 

Yitzchak is the one who has the challenging task of ensuring that this idea, indeed this mission, does not die. He is not the creator of a new idea, but he is nonetheless its bearer. 

All of which makes one particular verse seem rather strange:

After settling in Gerar, a Philistine city, to ride out the famine, Yitzchak’s reaction is decidedly unlike his father’s.

One might have expected Yitzchak to gather his flocks and move away, back to the mountains, just as his father Avraham left Egypt when the famine and drought finally passed in his day. (Bereishit 13:1).

But rather than leave the inhospitable environment of Philistine Gerar, Yitzchak actually stays, and begins to farm the land. (26:12-14)

Why does Yitzchak, out of the blue, become a farmer, a path his father Avraham never seems to pursue? In fact, the history of farming up to this point is rather less than illustrious. Noach farmed the land, planting vineyards which were ultimately his undoing, causing him to get drunk and fall naked in his tent. (Bereishit 9:20-21)

And before him, Kayin (Cain) farmed the land which may well have been part of what led him into the field where he murdered his brother Hevel (Abel) the shepherd.

Indeed, the land (and the process of farming it) was cursed by G-d way back when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:17-19)

• • •

What, indeed, is the difference between farming and sheep-herding? A shepherd can essentially take his livelihood with him wherever he goes, something we might have supposed Yitzchak would want to do; after all, he is currently residing in Gerar, a Philistine city whose residents were somewhat less than friendly, and he is apparently becoming quite wealthy, arousing jealousy amongst his Philistine neighbors (26:14).

Indeed, this has been the path of the Jew for the last 2,000 years, living with his bags packed ready to leave town at a moment’s notice, ahead of the pogroms and forced baptisms that was our lot time and time again.

Yet something causes Yitzchak to pursue a new path; to farm, an enterprise rooted in permanence, not easily transferable.

Further, when Avraham is confronted with a famine, he actually leaves the land, journeying down to Egypt where he will find fame and fortune as a herdsman, before coming back home to Israel.

Yitzchak, faced with the same situation, does not leave Israel, but moves to Gerar, a Philistine city. He does not divert from his father’s response on his own, but because this is what G-d tells him to do. (26:2-4)

Perhaps Yitzchak’s deviation in occupation is in keeping with the theme of Yitzchak’s role to be the bearer of Avraham’s message. Avraham is told by G-d to embark on a journey, leaving everything behind to go to “the land that I will show you.” (12:1). And now Yitzchak is told that his mission is to actually settle (and thus stay in) that very same land. 

Perhaps Yitzchak understands that if we want to receive G-d’s blessings in our lives, we have to be willing to do the work to allow that blessing in.

Here too, lies the great difference between herding flocks and working the land. Flocks are what you have, but land is what you work. More than any other enterprise, land connects us to the idea that nothing in this world is really ours.

A person can plough his land, sow his field, irrigate his crops and dream of riches, but it all depends on the rain, doesn’t it? Few occupations leave man more obviously dependant on G-d than farming. 

Like Abir in his shop, with his Roman glass and ancient walls, and his awareness that every day is a gift and a new field to be tilled, may we all be blessed with the wisdom to recognize all the ‘land’ we have been given to work, and the perseverance to farm those ‘fields’ and taste of their bounty.

A version of this column was published in 2012.