Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9) The Wells of History. Who Shall Carry Your Legacy?

elderly woman sitting on a park bench on lakeside
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            This is the portion starring Isaac. He becomes the transitional figure in the Patriarchal narrative. We meet the famous stories of the birthright and Isaac’s blessing of Jacob over Esau and the age old question that Isaac really did know exactly who he was blessing! Rebecca assumes a powerful supporting role in the portion, giving birth to “two nations” who continue to struggle! She lets her feelings be known regarding Esau’s choice of bride and, as a result, Isaac sends Jacob off to Rebecca’s family so that he may choose an acceptable wife.

            There is a scene, however, in the middle of the portion that often gets overlooked. In chapter 26, we read the story of Isaac at the Wadi Gerar. “Isaac dug anew the water wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” (26:18). A son returns to re-establish the work of his father. There is something tender and powerful here. Is it the linkage of generations? Is it Isaac saying that these wells represent my family heritage, they are part of my legacy and thus, I need to make sure that the work of my father continues. This is a sense of the first prayer in the Amidah, that reminds of the generational legacy that we all carry. The avot v’imahot speak to need to honor the legacy of the past and, that prayer, like this verse, carries with it the hope that those who follow us, especially our children, will honor that legacy.

            This little verse speaks to us as we get older. What shall our legacy be? What if we have no one to honor that legacy? How can we ensure that the moral and ethical lessons, our life experience, are passed on? No doubt many of us at this stage of life are contemplating just these questions as we ask what of our life do we wish to pass down to the next generations? Was Isaac honoring his dad by re-opening those wells? Curious act perhaps for someone who tried to kill you. Maybe it was the way to show by his act, that Isaac could surpass his father. The psycho-spiritual relationships of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and all parents and children do get played out in so  many ways. Even as we age, those voices from our past are always with us. Yet, an interpretation that fits so many of us rests on the premise drawn from the 5th Commandment to honor and respect.

            In “Our Fathers’ Wells”, a commentary on Genesis, Peter Pitzele notes that Isaac “By repeating his father’s acts, he takes those one-time events and transforms them into a model or paradigm”.(p.149) Isaac builds on the work of his father and in doing so carries on Abraham’s legacy and becomes a living link for that legacy in the next generation. All too often, as we age, we come to realize, understand, and honor our parents. As Pitzele writes of his relationship with his father: “At last I can look back into my boyhood and recognize that he gave me access to great sources of illumination, or to change the metaphor, he showed me where the water was, and I saw him dig the wells.”(p.147)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address

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