Toldot: Isaac Digs His Father’s Wells Anew

V’eleh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham: Avraham holid et Yitzchak

These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac. (Gen. 25:19)

In our marvelous Torah study class yesterday (if you are in the area and are able, join us at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Thursdays, December 4, 11 and 18 from 12:15-2:00 pm!) Bob Messing offered a fascinating observation:

There are two parshiyot (weekly Torah portions) that begin with the same wording. Parshat Noach (the portion “Noah”) begins “These are the generations of Noah” (Gen. 6:9). Parshat Toldot (the portion “Toldot” or “Generations”) begins “These are the generations of Isaac.”

Bob asked, if Parshat Noach is named after its protagonist Noah, why isn’t Parshat Toldot named after its protagonist Isaac? Why is it called Parshat Toldot, and not Parshat Yitzchak?

I assume that our Sages were quite intentional in choosing and naming the weekly portions, and that these choices are deeply evocative. They chose to name this portion “Generations” and not “Isaac.” Why?

Our first clue to an answer lies in the unusual repetition in our portion’s opening verse: “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac.” The first thing the Torah wants to make abundantly clear is that Isaac was Abraham’s son. A generational theme is immediately established. Perhaps this portion has something to teach us about the legacy that one generation passes on to the next. And Isaac certainly carries a complex legacy as the son of Abraham. He is the beloved miracle child of his parents’ old age, and the bearer of the promise God made to them that their descendants would be a blessing to the world. His father Abraham has bequeathed to him a relationship with the God of Creation. And yet, his father also nearly sacrificed Isaac on the altar of his own passionate calling. As with every legacy we receive from our parents, and from the chain of ancestors that preceded them, the good and the bad, the meaningful and the difficult, the traumatic and the life-giving are entwined and entangled. A major portion of our challenge on our respective journeys through life is the work of understanding and coming to terms with the legacy of the generations that preceded us. We are tasked with healing from the traumas that were willy-nilly inflicted upon us, while figuring out what parts of that legacy we want to integrate into our own lives and pass on to the next generation.

This reading of Isaac’s journey is reinforced by a fascinating passage in the next chapter, 26:15-25: And the Philistines stopped up all the wells dug by Isaac’s father Abraham, filling them with rubble… Isaac then began to dig anew the wells that had been dug [by] his father Abraham… And when Isaac’s servants dug in the wadi, they discovered there a well of living waters!

One of the names for God in the Torah is Mekor Mayim Chayim – the Source of Living Waters. In the Jewish tradition underground aquifers are a metaphor for the infinite fullness of life that flows beneath the surface of our lives. In order to tap that flow and be sustained by it, we must dig down, remove the rubble that impedes our connection to it, and create openings so that those ever-present living waters can “well up” to the surface. Then we are able to drink from those waters, and sustain others as well. Our ongoing work is to tend those wells – to be those wells. We are the channels through which flow the hidden living waters of life. We can become stopped up in so many ways – pain, fear, despair, fatigue, trauma – and our holy, beautiful work is to keep the well of living waters flowing through our lives.

But we are mistaken if we think that somehow we dug our well from scratch, that we invented ourselves. We are all, like Isaac, the inheritors of our parents’ wells.

And clearing the rubble from this central and formative relationship of our lives requires great perseverance. The story of Isaac’s digging hints at this arduous process. The first well that Isaac’s servants dig, Isaac names “Esek”, which means “Quarrel”. The second well Isaac names “Sitnah”, “Animosity” or “Accusation”. Only when the third well is dug is there no quarrel or animosity, and Isaac names that well “Rehovoth”, “Spaciousness”. As I look back on my engagement with my parents’ legacy, I remember a long process of wrangling and resenting and accusing. But I kept digging and eventually found Spaciousness, an acceptance and embrace of both the fierce, abiding love and the mishegas that my parents bequeathed to me. I intend to keep tending this well, which is now mine, so that hopefully I leave a minimum of unnecessary rubble for my children to clear out. They will have enough of their own!

I am also the inheritor of Judaism’s wells. The older I get, the more my awe and respect grows for all the Jews who came before me and kept those wells open against almost unfathomable hardship and odds. I faithfully continue to excavate the rubble of pain and trauma that keeps threatening to stop up these wells, so that the life giving beauty of Judaism can continue to flow into the world. I do it not only for myself, even though I am the grateful beneficiary of Judaism’s sustaining teachings. I do it for the sake of the generations that came before me, and for the generations that will hopefully follow, that they may continue to dig these wells anew and drink from the living waters.

One final teaching: The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was asked why the Amidah, the central prayer of the daily service, begins with “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (and we add, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, God of Leah.)” Isn’t this redundant? Why not just say “God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah)”? The Baal Shem Tov answered: “The God of Jacob was not the God of Isaac, and the God of Isaac was not the God of Abraham. Each grasped God in his own way, and so must each of us. Only then will God’s presence continue to dwell in this world.”

Isaac dug his father’s wells anew. He made them his own. He named them. He drank from them. We cannot passively accept previous generations’ ideas about religion or God, anymore than we can passively accept our parents’ legacy to us, and expect the living waters to continue to fill the well of our lives. The very survival of those legacies depends upon us claiming them as our own. It is another paradox: We cannot become our authentic, autonomous selves until we also fully embrace ourselves as taking our place in the chain of generations. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook expressed it thus: “What is old shall be made new, and what is new shall be made holy.”

Like Isaac, we have a lot of digging to do. But let’s not think of it as drudgery; rather, let’s sing this song while we work: “U’shavtem mayim b’sasson, mimayney hayeshuah – Draw water in joy from the living well!” (Isaiah 12:3)

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan