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Isaac, Digger of Wells

In Toldot, we come at last to Isaac’s story. And this year, as most years, we read it as we enter late autumn: a transitional time, the secular — or at least non-Jewish — equivalent to the transitional period that begins with Rosh HaShanah — New Year’s Day — and continues on through late summer/early autumn to Simchat Torah. The Jewish New Year observances begin as summer, warmth, and growth give way to decline. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this secular period begins as autumn is about to give way to winter. It is a time of more dark than light that includes Thanksgiving — the ultimate day of gluttony — and ends with New Year’s Day and the challenge of making and keeping resolutions to change.

Not only are these periods mirror images in many ways, but they offer Jews a double opportunity for introspection and change, a chance to get out of our ruts, to challenge ourselves to rise to the challenge of being the sort of people who dwell in God’s house.

Ruts are comfortable places, but also confining ones. Certainly, nothing is more difficult than change, nothing easier than to dwell in our ruts, even when we are unhappy in them. One way to get out of our ruts is to consciously take a different route and be open to where it takes us. One place to take that first step can be at services. There is certainly a comfort in the same prayers, the same tunes and their flow service after service. It can be discomforting, even disturbingly wrong, when that flow and comfort are replaced by something different. But let me suggest that we can and should consciously create such moments of dissonance as opportunities for personal growth and learning.

On the other hand, it may be that we are wrong when we think we are in a rut. What seems and is confining may, rather, be our challenge in life, one we are not free to walk away from. How do we know which is which, and how do we accept the challenges both bring us?

Of the patriarchs, Isaac seems to be the most stuck in a rut. In much of Toldot, the events of Isaac’s life track those of his father Abraham: the difficulty of having children; having children who are at odds with one another; a famine that almost drives him to Egypt; pretending his wife is his sister to avoid the wrath of a powerful ruler.

But most thankless of all the ways Isaac repeats his father’s life seems to be having to redig the wells Abraham had dug, but that others had filled up. Isaac’s name may mean “he will laugh,” but there seems to be so little joy in his life. Or perhaps he knows quiet joys. We know this is man who adores his wife and loves both his sons.

And perhaps these sorts of quiet joys are the quintessential Jewish and human joys. After all, our greatest task is to be a link in a chain from generation to generation, ensuring that Shabbat is observed throughout all time. Sometimes achieving that goal has meant being Abraham and leaving our native land. And sometimes it has left us redigging wells, recovering what has been buried and thought lost.

Ultimately, Isaac’s quiet life was not a rut. It was one that God found worthy. It is after redigging those wells that God appears to Isaac, blesses him in the name of his father Abraham, and promises Isaac that he will have many offspring and thus be a link in a great chain that stretches to us. And how does Isaac respond? He digs a well.

As we know, Isaac suffers the embarrassment of having his wife trick him into blessing the wrong son. Where other men might have taken furious action, Isaac accepts what life has brought. At the end of the parashah, he sends his beloved son Jacob off with the blessing of Abraham, that Jacob’s offspring will live in the land promised by God, thus becoming a link between Isaac and us. Isaac, as it turns out was not in a rut. His was a crucial link in human existence.

But more than just a link, Isaac was a digger of wells. Through the years, the Jewish people has cried out for water — physical and spiritual. We have needed wells and the people willing to dig them. Of the gentle spirit of Isaac, we can see the wisdom of the Talmudists when they said: “Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.” (Pirkey Avot 4:1). And also when they observed: “The task may not be yours to finish, but even so you are not free to desist from beginning it.” (Pirkey Avot 2:16). May our task of self-examination be one of considering our ruts and whether we should be in or out of them.

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