History never repeats itself but it rhymes,” -- John Robert Colombo
This week we read about a strange incident. After a drought hits the Land of Israel, Yitzchak heads south, apparently making his way to Egypt, like his father Avraham a generation before. However, unlike Avraham, G-d prevents him from completing the journey. Instead, he is ordered to stay in the Land of Israel in a Philistine city called Grar. While there, clearly expecting interest from the king in his beautiful wife, he lies and claims she is his sister, as Avraham did before him. But unlike Avraham, the king never attempts to take Rivkah and marry her. Finally, Yitzchak is asked to leave Grar as he has become too wealthy for the land, unlike Avraham who was allowed to stay and left voluntarily. After he leaves, he redigs the wells which were long ago dug by his father and then filled in by the shepherds of Grar, but this too causes conflict between Yitzchak and the city. It is only when Yitzchak digs new wells that he finally attains the peaceful existence he so obviously craves.
Yitzchak clearly sees himself as following the footsteps of his father, and only varies when forced to do so by circumstance. He is famously a figure who values the tradition and perpetuates it, making it stronger and more available for the next generation. It is only because of the traditionalism of Yitzchak that Ya'akov the radical is able to succeed at founding the People of Israel. However, when we examine Yitzchak's actions, we find a flaw in his reasoning. All of his attempts at traditionalism fall flat. They fail. For such a traditional figure, it is his innovations which are the success story in our reading this week.
The answer to this contradiction lies in the very nature of tradition. The adherence to tradition, the power of tradition, lies in the realisation that the world does not change very much. The old solutions found yesteryear are still relevant precisely because the problems are not so different. Almost all situations have some analogy in the past. But, crucially, while situations are often repeated, they are often different in their particulars. Tradition gains its power not from mindlessly pursuing the old ways, but from attempting to use them as a guide in adapting to the new.
A quote at the beginning of this piece is often misattributed to Mark Twain. He is said to have observed that while history does not repeat itself, it often rhymes. The implication is that the past has lessons which help us adapt to the future. However, the lesson of Yitzchak's life is more complicated. It is when we seek to have history rhyme, rather than merely repeat itself or start something completely new, that we are most likely to find success in our endeavours.