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D'var Torah on Parshat Tol'dot (Esau & Isaac)

11/15/2021 11:35:52 AM


Melinda Kassen

Most of us know this week’s parsha, Tol’dot, for the story of Jacob and Esau. There’s a lot there – stolen birthright and blessing, imperfect heroes, the Torah’s binary presentation of the twins, one good and one bad. There’s hate and sort-of reconciliation. Much that resonates in our polarized world.

But I want to talk about another part of this parsha: the story of Isaac re-digging Abraham’s wells. As some of you know, I’m a water person. We took our kid and his girlfriend rafting in June before they moved east. I just returned from a long-shared birthday weekend with my husband snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez. Most of my professional life was devoted to finding enough clean water in our semi-arid landscape for all needs, including for nature.

So, I like the story of Isaac re-digging his father’s wells around Beersheva. Not only is it about the importance of water in a desert landscape, but it’s really the only Torah story about Isaac. The binding of Isaac is about Abraham. How Isaac ended up marrying Rebecca is the story of Abraham’s servant’s quest, on behalf of a 40 year old man. Isaac and Rebecca’s meeting and marriage are a few declarative verses at the end of a chapter. When we get back to Isaac after Abraham’s death, the story picks up as Isaac asks God to let Rebecca get pregnant, but then goes immediately to the twins’ birth and Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright. In these, Isaac is passive, done to, or going along, not doing.

And then, there it is, at the start of Genesis Chapter 26. Between the thefts of the birthright and blessing, this story, this one story in the Torah where Isaac is the protagonist, the doer.

There’s famine in the land, likely caused by … drought. So the family has to move. Ultimately, Isaac prospers in his new place, enough that the locals become jealous. Abimelek (who’s still the Canaanite king, lo these many years later after his encounter w/ Abraham) tells Isaac to leave. And, the locals fill in the wells Abraham dug when he was in this vicinity, near Beersheva, the wells that played into the story about Abimelek and Abraham signing a peace treaty. Filling in wells in the dessert is an odd thing to do, since it may hurt you as much as the well’s owner.

Regardless, Isaac relocates. And the first thing he does is re-dig his father’s wells, giving them the same names his father had. Again, there’s that flavor of living in a dry land. Wells are so important they get names!

But those three old wells are apparently not enough because Isaac directs his servants to continue to look for water. They dig another well, but the locals dispute it, saying the water is theirs. Isaac names that well Dispute. Isaac has his servants continue to look and dig. Again they succeed, and the locals again object, so Isaac names that well Animosity. Finally, his servants dig a third well. The locals do nothing. Isaac names this well Rehoboth, meaning Roomy, perhaps to acknowledge that everyone is now spread out enough with their own water sources that there can be peace. And indeed, Isaac then himself enters into a peace treaty with Abimelek. And right afterwards, Isaac’s servants dig a fourth successful well that leads to Isaac settling down and once again becoming wealthy in this new place.

And that’s it. The Torah switches back to the story of the stolen blessing, which is more about Rebecca, Jacob and Esau, even though Isaac plays his part. Then, 10 chapters later, Isaac dies.

So what’s this one story about Isaac, our patriarch tell us?

First, sometimes the heroic, patriarch thing to do is to be a provider, for your family and your community. Water is life, especially in the desert. Our Jewish covenant is something that gets passed down between generations. The covenant of Isaac – the work of passing things down from generations and creating a covenant between generations – requires keeping everyone alive so the story can move forward. Here, it means securing water, re-digging his father’s wells and digging his own.

Second, the first three wells were his father’s. His whole story has lots of repetition with Abraham’s. But it’s not just repetition. At some point, repetition becomes … tradition. And tradition is also a key part of successful passing down covenant. In following but also deepening, Isaac creates tradition.

Third, many Talmudic scholars describe the process of digging a well – moving the layers of clay to uncover the water – as akin to a person uncovering his or her spirituality by moving beyond the layers of thought focused on practical day-to-day living. So, Isaac’s work of digging wells not only sustains his family, the practical aspect, but is itself also an act through which he reaches God.

What’s this got to do with us, a synagogue board?

Our task is to be like Isaac and respond to crisis by searching until we find life-giving water, in our case, the connections, the ways of doing and the resources to keep Har Hashem thriving.

Our task is to be like Isaac, by reviving the traditional wells but also adding new ones until there’s room for everyone to live more harmoniously. This is Har Hashem’s vision: to build a bigger, open, welcoming tent. And it’s the work now of executing the strategic plan we discussed yesterday.

And finally, our task is to be like Isaac where through tradition and improvement, we do practical things that lead us to uncover ways to celebrate our spirituality. So I’ll end with a shameless plug: Please attend the symposium on the environment and spirituality November 14th.


Tue, April 16 2024 8 Nisan 5784