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Isaac - Digger of Wells

In Toldot, we come at last to Isaac's story. And this year we read it
as we enter the secular -- or at least non-Jewish -- equivalent to the
period that begins with Rosh HaShanah -- New Year's Day -- and
continues on through late summer/early autumn to Simchat Torah. Food
is, of course, associated with both observances, most notably, the
absence of food on Yom Kippur. The Jewish New Year observances begin
as summer, warmth, and growth give way to decline. For those of us in
the United States, this secular period begins as autumn is about to
give way to winter. It is a time of more dark than light with
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 consciously create such moments
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, Isaac tracks his father Abraham's life, including the
difficulty of having children, of then having children who are at odds
with one another, of a famine that almost drives him to Egypt, and of
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 -- 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 2:21). May our task of self-examination be one of
considering our ruts and whether we should be in or out of them.
--------
Ellen Dannin is Fannie Weiss Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor
of Law at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and a former member of
the Ann Arbor Havurah, Dor Hadash in San Diego, and Congregation
T'chiyah in Detroit.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah