The principal dramas of Parashat Toldot arefocused on family dynamics—tensions between brothers, spouses, and the generations dominate it. Yet, there are other quiet dramas beneath the surface—literally. Consider the passage in chapter 26 describing Isaac’s attempts to reclaim the old wells dug by Abraham. The chapter begins with a divine command to Isaac not to remain, despite the drought. Indeed, he is the only one of the patriarchs and matriarchs to spend his entire life within “the land.”
It is a bit unclear whether Isaac’s diggings are all acts of recovery, as verse 18 implies, or whether he is merely opening Abraham’s wells before digging his own. The latter explanation makes some sense since the new well names refer to Isaac’s experience with the shepherds of Gerar, not back to the experiences of Abraham. Whatever the p’shat, the Ramban takes the episode as a remez (a hint of things yet to come); the first two wells represent the first two Temples, each of which was marred by conflict, and the yet-awaited third Temple, which is associated by the Rabbis to the imagery of Ezekiel 41:7 of distance, fertility, and partnership among the nations.
As Isaac and his crew were digging as a multitude, their work was hampered by dissension. Once they came together as a single unit they succeeded, and even their enemies came to make peace (see 26:31). The Ramban does not cite this grammatical shift but perhaps has it mind when he concludes his comments with the phrase that the nations will come to worship with Israel. We generally translate this phrase as “shoulder to shoulder” but the Hebrew is stronger—“working as one shoulder.”
This imagery of a future center of Jewish life that is open and welcoming, a place of peace, partnership and solidarity, is one which we must keep before our eyes. The current reality is much more like the first two wells. Each time we discover a source of spiritual energy, it elicits envy, anger and contention. As I discussed on Yom Kippur, nowhere is this truer than at the Kotel and here in Rockland County. Tensions abound between the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox and the more progressive Jews. As President of the Board of Rabbis, I can tell you that we are actively exploring ways to showcase our part of the Jewish community.
This Sunday is Rosh Hodesh Kislev. In Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall will again be daavening in the cynosure of the Jewish world and asserting their connection to this holy place. It looks to me that it is compatible to Isaac—digging in, despite hostility from all sides—and insisting on making a connection to the well of living water. The tension diminishes the sanctity of the place, and yet it appears to be unavoidable. Those who demand equal access to the holiest site in our tradition must stand firm and united with courage and persistence. Though challenging, there is hope in the story of Isaac and his wells. After finally securing a source of living water, he receives blessings from God and from his former adversaries. Now all he has to worry about are his sons!
As we enter the month of Kislev and approach the festival of Hanukah, may this be a time of rededicating our connection to the sources of Torah and building a house of prayer for all people.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham