October 30, 2013
The wells of peace: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
Wells, water, history and peace. Seems like as much as the world changes, advances and develops, some things remain intact, remain essential to our future. In the midst of this week’s parasha, Toldot, within the stories of familial strife among Isaac, Rebecca and their twin sons, Jacob and Esau, in between the pain, we have a scene that brings hope, if not for the immediate pain of the Torah’s story, then for the future, perhaps for us today.
Like his father before him, Isaac has to deal with a famine; like his father before him, Isaac is blessed with material wealth and success; like his father before him, Isaac lies about his wife being his sister; like his father before him, he has interactions with Abimelech of Gerar, the Philistine king. And like his father before him, Isaac digs wells, seeking water, which despite what anyone tells us to the contrary, is still the most valued commodity in the Middle East. I have become fascinated by these interactions of Abraham and Isaac with Abimelech, as they both end in peaceful ways, with enemies able to reconcile differences and strike an accord. In our parasha, Isaac “digs anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Genesis 26:18). One of the lessons that our tradition gleans from this verse is that connecting to our history, our past, is crucial to our present and future. Isaac digs the same wells as Abraham — not only that, he gives them the same names as Abraham did, restoring a connection that had been lost after Abraham’s death.
How do we identify, relate to and engage with those people, places and sacred objects that came before us? This verse, and this whole story, in a way, reminds us that as we pass from one generation to the next, we are called to retain through memory and intention a connection to that which came before us. It is a holy balance to live in the tension between creating anew and retaining tradition, between innovation that disassociates from the past and innovation that builds upon the past. By naming the wells with the same name, Isaac is validating what his father created, honoring that creation even as he tries to make his generation connected anew. That is the history.
And now for the peace. The Torah says that Isaac’s workers found a “b’air mayyim chayyim, a well of living water.” The added word of “chayyim” gives the Talmud an opening for a midrashic understanding of this verse: “Rabbi Hanina says, ‘One who sees a well in a dream sees peace,’ as it says, ‘and Isaac’s workers found a well of living water’ ” (Berachot 56b). Water has long been associated with peace, one of the natural elements of creation. Torah itself is also known as a ‘well of living water,’ as the same talmudic passage goes on to say. What can we learn from this? In a commentary on this verse, Torah Temimah explains what it means that if one sees a well in a dream, one sees peace. He writes, “The new well, which Isaac dug, could not be re-established and give water until Isaac had made peace with Abimelech.” After a negative experience with Abimelech, Isaac leaves the main area and retreats to the wadi of Gerar, as Abraham had also done. The men of Gerar continue to struggle with Isaac’s workers over the wells. It is not until there is reconciliation between Abimelech and Isaac that the word “shalom” appears, twice, in describing the pact between them (Genesis 26:29, 31). There is an honest dialogue, an acknowledgement of each other’s humanity, a festive meal and words of peace. It is then that the news of water from a new well comes forth. Isaac names that well “Sheva,” and the area is again named Be’er Sheva, as it was in the time of Abraham. Old wells and new wells of water revolve around oaths of peace.
Wells, water, history, peace. As I said at the beginning, in the midst of familial strife, when bad decisions lead to ominous and continued quarrels, Isaac is seen in this passage as an ish shalom, a man of peace. He finds a way, over water, to make peace. As the Talmud teaches us, when we dream of a well of water, we are dreaming of peace. Let the dreams of water flow! Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.