Our three spiritual forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each exemplify a different aspect of serving God. And together they teach us a valuable lesson about how we express our individuality in the world.
Abraham served God through love and joy. His hospitality became known throughout the ancient world, as he set up his tents near a major intersection where desert routes from the east, west, north, and south met. Within Abraham and Sarah’s tents, travelers were welcome to dine and rest their weary heads. During their time enjoying the comforts and delicacies served to all the guests, Abraham would teach them about God.
As Abraham’s guests prepared to leave, they would offer Abraham thanks and praise for the kindness and hospitality he showed them. Yet Abraham would use this as an opportunity to explain that praise and thanks belong solely to God, and together they would thank God for all the abundance He had bestowed on them.
Isaac, on the other hand, served God through awe and fear of the Lord. In contrast to his father, Abraham – a worldly man who spent much of his time mingling with all types of people – Isaac chose a life of solitude, meditating, praying, and studying God’s holy words. The fact that Isaac lost his sight, according to many commentators, symbolized that his vision was no longer physical – that though his body was on earth, his consciousness and awareness dwelt in the heavens above.
Isaac’s son Jacob was the synthesis of both his father and grandfather. While he was a simple man who spent his days meditating and studying God’s word in his father’s tent, Isaac also acquired the “street smarts” he needed in dealing with his brother Esau and his father-in-law, Laban.
According to Jewish teaching, the synthesis of fear and love, both of which Jacob exemplified, is mercy. Parents learn a lot about the idea of being merciful from our relationship with our children. Mercy bounds the unconditional love we have for our children (so we don’t spoil them) with discipline, which must also be constrained so as not to chase our kids away.
Jacob’s unique attribute of mercy, which combines love and acceptance with justice and strength, enabled him to outmaneuver Esau and Laban, gave him strength to grapple with and defeat an angel, and empowered him to raise a large family that his love and compassion carried during some very rough times. That family eventually formed the basis of the Jewish people.
In today’s world, individuality and the ability to make independent, personal choices are regarded as sacred. Yet we learn from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that individuality in itself is not sacred. Rather, our unique qualities and abilities can become sacred when they are rooted in something greater than the individual.
Abraham took a very different path in life than his family and the pagan society he was brought up in. Yet, every step of his life was filled with the intention of bettering the world and bringing humanity closer to truth, to justice, and to God.
Isaac and Jacob were both rooted in Abraham’s beliefs, yet they each had their own unique way of expressing it in the world. And today, thousands of years after these holy men walked the earth, we too want to leave our unique mark on the world. In order for our individuality not to simply lead us to selfishness, our quest for meaning and purpose must be rooted in our past, our faith, and our godly heritage.