By Chaplain Leslie Klipstein
A therapist once asked me why I kept going to the same dry well hoping for water. We’d been discussing a challenge in my life and I was struck by the question. It was a good question with many answers – habit, history, hope – and one that this week’s parsha allowed me to reflect upon once again.
Between Esau’s tragic losses of his birthright and his blessing, Isaac sojourns in Gerar, where he grows “richer and richer…so that the Philistines envied him.” They fill his wells with dirt, just as they had done to Abraham’s wells after Abraham died. What does Isaac do in response? He digs them anew, re-plumbing “the wells which had been dug in the days of his father…and [giving] them the same names that his father had given them.” When new quarrels arise with the herdsmen of Gerar over these wells, what does he do? He digs another! After more disputes, Isaac decides to move on and dig another. “At last,” Isaac exclaims, “Adonai has granted us ample space to increase the land,” at which point there are blessings and feastings and peace with the people of Gerar. “That same day,” Torah tells us, “Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!”
Reflecting on my therapist’s question, I suppose I, like Isaac, needed to see what was there – to dig old wells before finding my own sources of sustenance. To make peace and to celebrate alongside my seeking. So, too, with Torah study, I go to the sources that came before, looking for waters of wisdom, something to quench my thirst for meaning. The Sfat Emet said that Isaac dug the wells to find hidden lights rather than (or in addition to) water – that he models for us the art of learning from our ancestors, digging deeper into our traditions to reach a higher plane of understanding and a deeper connection to the Divine.
As a modern woman, I sometimes think that Torah feels like a well filled with silt and stone, the waters within obscured by gendered language, unkind cultural contexts, off-putting descriptions of embodied experiences like menstruation, pregnancy, and birth (or, G-d forbid, being accidentally penetrated by a man falling off of a roof) – myriad layers that must be dug through, boulders that must be moved. Getting to the water takes work, and when a well is disputed, I find a way to move to a different one. Like Isaac, I know the water is there. Like Isaac, I am in a time and place where “Adonai has granted us ample space” to keep digging new wells until I find water.
At the beginning of Toldot, pregnant Rivkah feels a struggle in her womb and cries out, “If so, why do I exist?” Her pregnancy is so physically difficult she questions her very life. HaShem answers, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” I’m not sure that answered her question. If what we birth into the world is destined for discontent and war, for insecurity and a life of defensiveness, then why, indeed. Why are we?
As I read parshat Toldot this cycle, I cannot help but bind it, in my mind and in my heart, to the ways these struggles and questions are manifesting in world affairs, especially in Israel. Jacob struggles with Esau in the womb and throughout their lives, and he later becomes Israel, the G-d wrestler, just as he’s about to reunite with Esau after a long estrangement.
Why are we? Are we here to dig anew into the life-giving waters of our ancestors, to re-plumb the depths of our tradition for the affirming wisdom that can carry us through the deserts – literal and metaphoric, personal and political – that threaten our existence? To dig new wells of Torah to sustain us and bless us? In parshat Toldot, all this digging leads to expansiveness and peace with our neighbors. All this digging leads to abundance, “ample space” for all, and a vision of what can be when we seek our own water rather than power over another.
May it be so again, soon and in our time.
May our thirst be always for peace.
May we be willing, always, to dig new wells of understanding.