Parashat Toledot 5783

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Toledot
By Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

“Still waters run deep.”

Coined several centuries before Shakespeare’s take-off in Henry VI, Part 2—Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep—this idiom seems to date back to the Latin: Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi—The deepest rivers flow with the smallest sound.

That’s our Isaac—our ancestor with the least to say, but perhaps with the most bubbling underneath the surface. Maybe that’s why, in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot, Isaac is busy digging wells. Let’s unearth this situation together…

What’s bothering Isaac?

A question usually reserved for dissecting a Rashi teaching, I think we could ask the same of Isaac. What is bothering this poor soul to lead him to this seemingly compulsive action of digging not one, not two, but five wells in fairly quick succession? What is going on with all this digging? From my armchair, I offer the analysis that Isaac is physically trying to excavate some buried, unresolved issues with his father, Abraham.

Here’s how I see it: Isaac has been through a lot in these last few parashiyot. I think it is safe to say that among the traumatic events in his life, having a father who was commanded by his deity to sacrifice his son, left a—if not physical, then psychological—mark. Abraham may have been the only one described as descending the mountain just after that escapade (Gen. 22:19), but I want to suggest that in Toledot, we see that Isaac may have been chasing after him—literally and figuratively—ever since.

First, we see in an echo of the journey of his father Abraham, famine propels Isaac to travel to Egypt. But he doesn’t get there. This forefather, יהוה commands to stay “ba-aretz”—in the Land. (Gen. 26:2) So, Isaac stays in Gerar, with promises from יהוה of blessing and inheritance and prolificacy, “fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” (Gen. 26:3)

Here, too, Isaac follows in Abraham’s footsteps: while in Gerar, Isaac is less than truthful about his relationship to his wife Rebecca. Like Abraham, when Isaac is asked about his wife, he offers, “ahoti hi”—she is my sister (Gen. 26:7), and draws the consternation of Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, when Avimelekh finds out otherwise. Also, just like his father’s encounter with Avimelekh, Isaac does—at least, initially—walk away from the situation favorably, with protection from the king.

What Isaac doesn’t get is an invitation to stay in Gerar. Abraham was offered “the ranch”—land, silver, livestock, slaves—and is told, “Here, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.” (Gen. 20:15) On the contrary, Isaac receives no such offer, but takes it upon himself to sow “in that land.” (Gen. 26:12) And as soon as Isaac starts to settle into the land and establishes wealth, the Philistines envy him and they “…stop up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham…” (Gen. 26:15) Envious, or perhaps “they were afraid that in the event that when Isaac would grow up he would be as powerful a figure as his father [and] he would appropriate these wells.” (Radak on Genesis 26:15) Either way, putting the kibosh on any future relations, Avimelekh sends Isaac away.

But where to go? He can’t go to Egypt; he can’t stay in Gerar. Attempts to trace his father’s path are being thwarted at each turn. So, Isaac leaves, but he doesn’t go far. He settles in the nearby wadi of Gerar—and starts digging. But not just anywhere. “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” (Gen. 26:18)

Isaac goes back to the source—or sources, as it were. The wells that his father once dug which had been stopped up, which had been rendered unusable, Isaac makes usable. In doing so, Isaac restores life to a land in which his family and the Philistines can both live and thrive.

For this—for reviving what had once been crucial sources of life created by his father—Isaac gets doubly blessed. “That night יהוה appeared to him and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham’s [house]. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham.” (Gen 26:24) And Avimelekh, too, realizing the error of his ways tells Isaac, “From now on, be you blessed of יהוה!” (Gen. 26:29)

What’s bothering Isaac? Given how he so closely retraces Abraham’s steps in this parashah, I wonder whether Isaac’s well-digging is indicative of him trying to understand why his father did the things that he did. I also wonder whether in the process of re-claiming those wells, Isaac digs his way to making his father’s journey his own. If so, I think he would not be alone. Indeed, it could be said that Abraham, too, took up the mantle from his father’s journey—from Ur to Haran—and continuing on from there, made it his own.

And is that not the way of most human beings? We may think of ourselves as a complete entity, on our own insulated journeys, but do we not carry with us—and even, chase after—the journey of our parents, the dreams of our ancestors, and all of their hopes and worries for the future? Isaac’s quest to follow in his father’s footsteps and dig deep into his past, hopefully, garners for him some measure of accomplishment, if not resolution. But what I think we can hope for—and what I imagine that Isaac eventually finds—is that it is possible to delve into the anxieties of our past in order to transform them into the blessings of our future.
Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.