I've been thinking a lot this week about Isaac and the role of his story in the narrative of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. In many ways, Isaac is the least distinctive of the bunch. Rashi famously quotes a midrash explaining that Isaac looked exactly like his father - he didn't even have his own face. Reading through Parashat Toledot, we see that Isaac's life followed a similar arc as his father, Abraham.
Praying for a child on behalf of a barren wife. Enduring famine and a need to leave home. Going to Avimelekh to seek refuge. Passing off his wife as his sister. The parallels are uncanny. Isaac even reclaims and re-digs the wells of his father. Rather than forging his own path in the world, he walks in Abraham's well-trodden footsteps.
This is often taken as a deficit of Isaac's, a lack of original contribution to the world, but especially in light of this week's March for Israel in Washington DC, I'm appreciating the power and meaning contained in traveling paths first walked by others.
When explaining the march to my students and my children, I could not help talking about the march on behalf of Soviet Jews in 1987 and the demonstration in support of Israel during the Second Intifada in 2002. One or both of these strong shows of support for global Jewry were formative for many people, myself included. I knew going in that attending Tuesday's march would recall those past experiences.
In some ways, revisiting those previous experiences highlights the painful reality that the Jewish people and the State of Israel are yet again in need of massive public demonstrations of support and advocacy. As the horrifying events that ignited this complicated war recede into the distance, international attention focuses more and more on what Israel is doing wrong. Antisemitism in many forms comes out of the woodwork, serving as a bleak reminder of one of the critical roles of the existence of Israel - to ensure the ongoing safety of Jewish people around the world. And of course, the desperate situation of those kidnapped by Hamas demands that we continue to raise our voices. As Rachel Goldberg, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, said in her stirring speech, “Why is the world accepting that 240 human beings from almost 30 countries have been stolen and buried alive?”
And in other ways, the awareness that we have been here before, at least for me, brought comfort and strength. So many of us were there together, offering our presence, our calls of #bringthemhome, our prayers for each other. There was so much that was familiar. I know I was not alone in running into old friends from all over the world, some of whom I hadn't seen in decades. Singing the words of Psalm 121 with Ishay Ribo connected me with all those present, and also with the innumerable generations of people who have used that Psalm for the exact same purpose. For most of the rally, the small group I was with was surrounded by strangers, but it felt like being with family. We shared snacks and played Jewish geography. It was almost like standing at Sinai.
Being back on this well-worn path also heightened my awareness of the seeds I was planting for the future. For the young people there, they didn't necessarily have a deep understanding of why gatherings like this matter (even if they had learned about previous ones). Answering questions from my students like, "Who's Debra Messing?" and "Why is there a Russian person talking? [Natan Sharansky] I thought this was about Israel..." helped them begin to understand that the march spoke beyond this current moment. Bringing my own child as well instilled the message that Jewish people stand together and that every voice matters.
There was so much that came out of again traveling this familiar path. And my deepest prayer is that we'll never have to do it again.