Our sages tell us that the events our forefathers lived through that are recorded in the Torah are meant to serve as a “sign for their children.” Not only are they an indication of what the course of our history will be, but they also are a source from which we derive strength to contend with our own challenges.
In this week's Torah portion, Toldot, we read that there was a hunger in the land. G-d appeared to Isaac and told him, “Do not go down to Egypt. Dwell in the land that I have told you; live in this land and I will be with you and bless you.” Isaac was born holy and pure, and it was forbidden for him to leave the land of Canaan.
This directive to Isaac is also a guidance to the nation of Israel, his children: The true place of a Jew is not in exile but in Israel. Even after we have sinned and were sent out of our land, we cannot become complacent or make peace with the situation. We are not in the place where we are meant to be. Every moment, we hope and pray that G-d will return us to our land. Three times a day, in the amidah prayer, we request, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion with mercy.”
When Abraham faced a hunger, he left the land of Canaan for Egypt. There, he was able to influence people to recognize G-d. He brought them under the wings of the Shechinah, the Divine presence, and brought them close to G-d.
His son Isaac, however, never left the Holy Land. He was commanded by G-d to remain in Israel. Even in the land, he rarely left his own surroundings to influence the people outside, like his father did. His main Divine service was with himself, elevating his own character.
From our two forefathers we receive two paths in Divine service. From Abraham we learn the path of going outward, to work with others, to publicize the name of G-d in every place in the world and draw others close to G-dliness. Even those who, as a general rule, are occupied with Torah study, need to set aside time to give to others and share with them their insight and knowledge, and draw them close to G-d.
From Isaac we learn a different approach. He gives us strength for the work we do with ourselves, elevating our own character, to study Torah and live by its directives. Even those who are occupied with worldly matters most of the day, and come in contact with many individuals and bring them close to Torah, nevertheless must not forget their obligation to keep growing in their own Torah study and Divine service. From time to time, they must remove themselves from worldly obligations in order to concentrate solely on G-dliness.
Through following and melding these two distinct pathways, we are assured that we will fulfill our ultimate purpose--to bring G-dliness to every corner of the world and elevate our own personalities, so that we can return “home” whole in body and soul, and bring the entire Jewish people along with us.