The Zohar (Bereshit 264a) imputes different character traits to each of the patriarchs. Abraham is said to embody love, Isaac is said to embody valor, and Jacob is said to embody truth. This is all very strange. It is hard to reconcile Abraham’s love with his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac and banish his son Yishmael along with Hagar. And it is hard to reconcile Jacob’s truthfulness with his persistent deceits: impersonating his older brother to earn the birthright, concocting a plan to deprive Laban of the offspring of his flocks and herds. And it is also hard to reconcile Isaac’s purported valor when he never participates in any military engagement, unlike his father who goes to war and his son Jacob who wrestles with an angel. It is the characterization of Isaac that most perturbs Rabbi Yehudah Shaviv (Mi-sinai Ba, p. 55-6).
At first glance, the picture the Torah paints of Isaac is that of a compliant weakling. He offers no objections to being offered as a human sacrifice and he fails to respond to the repeated challenges of the shepherds of Gerar who deny him use of the wells he dug (Gen. 26: 18-22). But Rabbi Shaviv, following the Midrash (Tanhuma Toldot 7), maintains that in Isaac’s weakness lies his strength. That strength is not his military prowess or bravery but persistence. Isaac never gives up. Despite the fact that the shepherds of Gerar present a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, Isaac displays a dogged tenacity and resolve. He is determined to find a water source no matter the obstacles his competitors put in his way. This is uncommon valor.
What tradition tries to convey is that there are variant measures of bravery. To be sure, taking up arms for a worthy cause is an example of bravery. But it is not the sole example. Sometimes courage is measured by the steadfast resolve to pursue a course of action that might be difficult or impeded. This was the courage of Isaac who earns the characterization of valor.