In this week’s Torah portion, Tol’dot (literally, “generations” or “descendants”), we usually focus on the stories surrounding Jacob and Esau. In the middle of this parashah is a story about a famine in which Isaac and Rebekah go to the area known as Gerar. In Gerar, they encounter Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines, whom Isaac’s father and mother, Avraham and Sarah, had previously encountered back in parashat Vayera. If you remember, Avraham said: “She is my sister.” Now, in our story, Isaac says the very same thing! Avimelekh did not want a repeat of the previous episode when he actually took Sarah and suffered greatly. This time, Avimelekh gives Isaac and Rebekah royal robes and had them placed on the finest of horses and made a declaration that anyone who dared even to throw a pebble at them would be put to death.
In the midst of this narrative, the Torah tells us that all of the wells that Avraham’s servants had dug had been plugged up by the Philistines and filled up with dirt. Then, we are told that Isaac re-dug these wells, what he named them, and about the struggles he had to maintain control over them.
In this era, water was important and the digging of wells certain was essential to the raising of sheep and cattle and to the survival of families. The Kabbalah, however, looks at this with different eyes. Avraham is seen as representing the attribute of chesed (“loving-kindness”) and Isaac as representing the attribute of gevurah (“strength, limits, restraint”). By “digging a well” a source of water was revealed that was already existing. In this simile, perhaps Isaac recognized the lack of loving-kindness in his life as he put Avimelekh at risk again. So, Isaac worked to uncover the spiritual wells, the source loving-kindness that had been covered up and were no longer available to him. Perhaps, Isaac learned that he was lacking that positive quality that his father had embodied and, instead, fell into the negative quality and same old negative behavior patterns of his father. This is the “dirt” we need to dig away in our lives so that we might drink from the well-spring of loving-kindness that exists within us.
It is an interesting development in the story that when the shepherds of Gerar claimed that the water was theirs and they took the well by force, the water dried up. But, when they returned it to Isaac, it immediately became full of water again (Targum Yonaton). Loving-kindness is something that cannot be demanded or taken. Loving-kindness has to be revealed. In a world of aggression and anger and war, the wells of loving-kindness get plugged up and require some “digging” to reveal the Source once again.
Tol’dot…like father like son, the generations after us which we create, the legacies we leave behind.
Albert Bandura, a psychologist at Stanford, teaches in his social learning theory that children (and adults new to situations) learn from others in the environment how to behave. So, what did Isaac learn from his father and subsequently repeat? What have we learned from our families of origin or from unknown situations that continue to not serve us today? “Digging a well” implies that we need to do some work in order to uncover that well of loving-kindness, compassion, understanding, and, G-d willing, better behaviors that has been covered up by the dirt of the Philistines in our lives and needs to be re-dug.
Interesting are the lyrics that Stephen Sondheim wrote in his musical Into the Woods:
Careful the things you say,
children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
children will see and learn.
Children may not obey,
but children will listen,
children will look to you
for which way to turn.
Rabbi Micha’el Akiba