July 15, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Toldot

Weekly Parsha: one verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And Isaac again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Abraham. – Gen. 26:18

Rabbi Daniel Greyber
Beth El Synagogue, Durham, N.C.
In memory of Dr. Howard Greyber (z”l).

Isaac is banished from Gerar. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza (1800-54) imagines Isaac sitting at the edge of town, knowing that everything happens for a reason, and wondering, “What does God want me to learn from this moment? I am the son of Abraham, “a prince of God” (Genesis 23:9). “Why would Avimelech treat me this way?” Isaac regains his composure and realizes: “I am blemished. I am lacking the love my father, Abraham, brought to the world.” So he digs the wells of his father to find more wellsprings of love and Torah for his life, to follow better in his father’s footsteps.

My father died nearly two years ago. I sometimes wonder where he is — if he can see me, if he knows the things in my head and my heart. Since that November night when I sat in the room where his body lay still on the bed, there have been moments when I’ve been lost and confused, when I haven’t understood why my life is the way it is, and I too have wondered, “What does God want me to learn from this moment? Am I blemished? Where can I dig the wells of my father? What will I find? How can I bring more love into the world?”

Nina Litvak

Isaac is the most enigmatic of the patriarchs. The Torah devotes relatively little space to Isaac, and during the biggest events of his life he is passive. Isaac is prepared as a sacrifice by his father; he waits for a wife someone else has chosen for him; he is lied to by his son. 

The one active role Isaac takes is digging and re-digging wells. Many of the wells Isaac digs were originally dug by Abraham before being filled by the Philistines. Isaac’s work re-digging his father’s old wells gives us insight into his true greatness. 

Abraham and Isaac looked alike but had different missions. Abraham’s main activity was hosting guests. He spread knowledge of God to the people around him, bringing holy light down from above. Isaac’s main activity was digging wells. Isaac dug into the earth and brought life-sustaining water — representing Torah — up from below. Living things need both light and water to survive. 

Abraham was able to dig the wells, but he couldn’t sustain them for the next generation. Isaac did the vital work of rescuing and renewing his father’s work. Abraham’s wells were useless without Isaac’s re-digging. So, too, Abraham’s outreach was not sustainable without Isaac to deepen and preserve it.

Isaac’s digging inspires me today. I’m the first woman in four generations of my family to light Shabbat candles. Like Isaac, I am rediscovering that which is old and valuable and forming a link between our forefathers and future generations.

Rivkah Slonim
Educational Director, Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life, Binghamton University, New York

The verses in the Torah that deal with Yitzchak digging wells get scant attention. To quote Nachmanides: What kind of honor is this to Yitzchak that he dug wells?!

Yet, it is precisely these verses that help us understand Yitzchak’s essential characteristic.

Yitzchak personified gevurah — strength and discipline. In stark contradistinction, his father Abraham’s overarching characteristic was chesed — kindness and benevolence. Intuitively, at least conceptually, we gravitate toward chesed. But the trick is balance.

Our verse teaches that while Abraham dug wells, his work did not enjoy permanence; ultimately, the wells were covered over. Abraham’s modality was chesed: lavishing goodness from above to below, from benefactor to beneficiary. Yitzchak, on the other hand, embodied gevurah; he dug up this well (actual and metaphoric) and this time it remained open. Yitzchak’s way was to excavate, to find the inherent and intrinsic good that lay nascent and unseen, rather than to apply an overlay from above. 

Understood in this way, this verse offers a profound lesson to us as teachers, mentors and parents. It is easier and more enjoyable to bestow upon our children, students and mentees the information they need. But if we want to give them a lasting gift, we must give them the tools to find the knowledge from within. It takes more time and patience to be a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” But, ultimately, this produces a well one can draw from indefinitely.

Pinchas Winston

In the Torah, a well of water is usually a symbol of Torah itself, especially when it comes to the forefathers. Any story in which a well appears invites us to investigate further and mine deeper insights about life. 

What, therefore, do we learn from the fact that Isaac had to re-dig the exact same wells as his father, Abraham, after the Philistines had filled them in? On a deeper level, it would mean that the Torah Abraham had “dug” up, and from which others “drank,” was buried again by the Philistines. How so? 

There is an example of this today. Hundreds of years ago, it was uncommon for a family that drifted from Torah to have descendants return in later generations. Usually, once a family assimilated, all connection to Judaism was gone. 

In recent decades, ba’alei teshuvah, literally, “owners of repentance,” have done the opposite. Secular Jews have made their way, sometimes miraculously, back to Torah. Over time they have “learned the ropes” and embraced Torah Judaism. 

Thus, these ba’alei teshuvah have reopened the Torah wells “dug” by their ancestors, which became “filled in” with other world philosophies due to intense persecution or their moving deeper into the Diaspora where Jewish education was nonexistent. Some secular Jews don’t even know what Torah is. How can they possibly dig up a thing they do not know exists? 

If a person is a truth-seeker, they will find their way to truth; and in time, Torah will come to them. 

Dan Messinger
Owner of Bibi’s Bakery and Café

Two questions come to mind: First, what has happened to the wells that they need to be dug again? Perhaps they ran dry and were abandoned, or maybe nature simply reclaimed them. In either case, the locals covered them up after Abraham’s death. Bottom line: The wells were closed. 

Second, why not just find a new place to dig wells, instead of returning to the same place to re-dig them? 

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are always to go back to the well. Just a few weeks ago we finished the cycle of reading the Torah, only to roll it back and begin again. This scroll has been the sourcebook of our people from the days of our fathers and mothers and beyond. Thousands of years of commentary and interpretation sit layered upon the story of the Jews. At times it can feel like the essence of the Torah has been covered over and stopped up. But it is upon us to dig down and reveal the spring that lies beneath. 

Digging a well requires faith that at the end of all the hard work we will be rewarded with refreshment. Diving into Torah requires the same faith, with a reward far greater than a drink of water.