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Parashat Toledot 5781

November 19, 2020
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A D’var Torah for Parashat Toledot
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

Parashat Toledot traces the arc of the patriarch Isaac’s life from the beginnings of his married life to his old age. Along the way, seemingly more energetic actors plot and scheme around him: his wife Rebecca, his sons Jacob and Esau, even his neighbors, the Philistines. Isaac’s primary virtue appears to be naivety.

Some readers find Isaac’s character to be one of extended adolescence, always traveling in his parents’ footsteps, repeating the steps of their lives, and never venturing forth on his own. One might say that he has a failure to launch. Instead of going out to find a wife, one is brought to him. Instead of leaving the land of Canaan in time of famine to improve his fate, he stays close to home. He moves to the wadi of Gerar and digs up the same wells his father dug years before. He encounters a new king, Abimelech, and tells the same lie his father told twice – that his wife is actually his sister (although he is not a very successful liar). He lacks the one marker of mature adulthood both his father Abraham and son Jacob share: a spiritual name change. Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, but Isaac is always Isaac. The leader who more clearly follows Abraham’s path is not Isaac, but his wife Rebecca, who forges ahead with her own wisdom, and decides the fate of the Jewish people by helping Jacob supplant Esau as Isaac’s heir.

So what kind of leader is Isaac? Isaac is a nurturer, not an innovator. He maintains his family in health, prosperity, and love, rather than seeking out greener pastures and endangering them all. After the explosive growth ushered in by Abraham, Isaac makes sure the family actually survives.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus writes on this parasha,

Isaac’s digging the same wells that his father dug shows us how he takes his place in… the family story that becomes our national history. He understands the need to reclaim his father’s traditions and to ensure their survival. It is an act of maturity [that he further honors with] his father’s memory giving the wells the “same names that his father had given them” (Genesis 26:18). Only then did Isaac’s servants find “there a well of [living] water” (Genesis 26:19).

Isaac puts all of his energy into maintaining the basic infrastructure of life: digging wells so that the most elemental needs of life can be quenched, and “playing” with his wife so that the core unit of his family is maintained in joy. Abraham struck out with a new vision of religious life, but he failed to maintain his most primary relationships. Jacob allowed jealousy and trickery to fester in his own household. Neither Abraham nor Jacob were blessed with the simple peace and harmony that pervades Isaac’s life. Isaac’s spiritual gift is the elevation of the life of home and family. Perhaps more of us can appreciate this particular gift in a time when the radius of our own lives has become smaller and smaller. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev argues that Isaac provided an essential function in the spiritual evolution of Abraham and Sarah’s family. While Abraham’s spiritual role was to “gather up the divine sparks” scattered among the world outside the land of Israel, Isaac’s role was to devote his life to lifting up those sparks within the land itself. This was Isaac’s accomplishment, which the Torah refers to as “Toledot Yitzchak” (Kedushat Levi on Genesis 26:3).

As our world again gets smaller, and if we are lucky enough to remain safely in secure homes, may we turn to the wisdom of Isaac in lifting up those divine sparks in our own homes. May we devote ourselves to providing both the playful love and nourishing “living water” for ourselves and those we care for, and trust that we are fulfilling our spiritual purpose in this time.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.