There is something about Yitzchak that most commentators identify and yet do not seem to fully explain, and that is his unusual association with Be’er Lechai Ro’ee – the well by which Hagar experienced prophecy. Many suggest that he was attracted to it for its spiritual properties – it was a place with an apparent propensity for connection with God. The problem with this is that it makes it sound as if his step-mother was the only one in his family to have a prophetic experience. Did not his father, Avraham, receive prophecy as well? Hence it would have been much more natural for Yitzchak to frequent places where his father had experienced God, rather than his step-mother.
Presumably sensing the difficulty just mentioned, Rashi quotes midrash to provide an alternative explanation, one subsequently endorsed by Rabbenu Bachya as the simple meaning of the text: According to the rabbis, Be’er Lechai Ro’ee became Hagar’s dwelling place after she was expelled from Avraham’s house. Hence, Yitzchak, did not go there to pray or meditate. Rather he was on a mission, and that mission was to return Hagar to Avraham in marriage. Indeed, there is a very strong rabbinic tradition that this happens immediately after this story, Ketura really being another name for Hagar.
According to either explanation, however, there is a somewhat unexpected identification of Yitzchak with Hagar. Making this identification even stranger is the fact that Yitzchak makes this place his home after Avraham dies (25:11). Yet none of this is that strange if we are prepared to take a fresh look at the story. While the rabbis discuss the possibility of others having conscious prophecy, there are only two people living at that time that the Torah presents as knowing that they are involved in a prophetic experience – Avraham and Hagar. Yet their experiences are not entirely of the same cloth: Whereas Avraham’s experiences often involve a give and take with God, Hagar’s do not. This means that while Avraham often challenges the Divine will; Hagar simply submits to it. This presented Yitzchak with two modalities of spirituality – that of his father and that of his step-mother. Aspiring to become a prophet himself, he was presented with a choice how to express it. And choose he did. When we reflect on his own experiences with God and the rabbis’ subsequent description of Yitzchak as a man of strict judgement (as opposed to being a man of kindness like his father), it becomes clear that Yitzchak chose the path of his step-mother.
Incidentally, this can also explain why he would bring Hagar back to remarry Avraham. As we know, it was only with Yaakov that a balance was established between the expansive spirituality of Avraham (chesed) and the restrictive spirituality of Yitzchak (din). Yet balance is not only needed historically for the Jewish people, it is needed in each and every family. Avraham’s approach may have been monumentally great, but it lacked balance. There could be no better way to establish that balance than by bringing him together with someone whose approach was just the opposite of his own. That someone was Hagar. (While it would take us beyond the current discussion, I think there is good grounds to argue that Yitzchak’s own wife served a similar role for him.)
To follow one’s predecessors can be tricky. If they have left major gaps in their work, our own path opens up without too much difficulty – to perfect the work left undone. But what if we are heir to someone who has completely mastered a new approach? All we can do is to follow and try to model that approach. Such a task has its place, but it is not the type of thing that captures the imagination of a creative giant. And though Yitzchak’s genius is often overshadowed by that of both his father and his son, there is no question that it was there. Luckily, the perfected path of Avraham was not his only choice. Since his step-mother had not perfected her path, she left a greater space for Yitzchak to express his own genius. And as I have written in my first book, that is exactly what he did.
Finding role models is a tricky proposition. We have a natural tendency to pick people that are not so dissimilar to ourselves. That makes sense, as it will generally be easier to follow those with which we can more easily identify. But its ease doesn’t always make it correct. Sometimes, we need to be more adventurous in the search for what God wants from us. Yitzchak’s choice of Hagar shows us the need to broaden our horizons about this. We might have said that with a father like Avraham, why look any further. But Yitzchak’s wisdom was to examine not only the most obvious; to be involved in careful examination of where he had the most to contribute. It is this type of thinking that reveals Yitzchak’s true boldness, a boldness we need to recognize as