Toldot: What We Take From and Leave Generations

This coming Shabbat (Nov. 21/22) brings us to another of those portions that have occupied commentators for generations. This portion contains the famous story of Isaac being “fooled” by Jacob as he obtains the birthright from his brothee Esau. What role did Rebeccah play and did Isaac really know what was going on and was it all a power play by parents using their children as vehicles? A great Torah portion. But, I want to comment on another aspect of this portion, one that, as we are trying to do on this site, looks at some implications for our generation.
In Genesis 26: 18ff, Isaac comes to dig again the water wells of his father Abraham. He returns to a place where his father had found water (a Biblical symbol for many things, from cleanliness, purification and transition). He builds on what his dad had done. His well finds water, the place name becomes Beersheba (Genesis 26:33) and then major transitions in Isaac’s life take place. What can we take from this incident of the wells? Peter Pitzele has an book of commentary on this in his “Our Fathers’ Well”. Pitzele says that this redigging of his father’s well is the sum total of Isaac’s maturity. “Isaac is the son who returns and repairs the work of the father” (p.149) Let me, however, suggest something that flows from the building on Abraham’s wells and from the title of the portion, “Toldot” (generations, or family line). It is something that is gaining in popularity in congregations around the country as the aging revolution becomes more crucial.
There has been a spike of interest in creating groups to examine the writing of Ethical Wills or personal spiritual autobiographies. The Ethical Will itself is part of our tradition as it originates from passages at the end of Genesis. The rise in interest in these type of programs, I feel, is a direct result of our extended life spans. We have been given the gift of time and in that gift is the opportunity to do a “life review”. What have I learned? What have I concluded are the real priorities of life? What have I learned from generations past? What do I wish to leave the next generation? We often, in these conversations, return to “dig” up the wells that our parents dug and to examine how what we found impacted us and how we relate to our family. These groups often use a text to begging the process. No matter, a lesson from this portion is that we are part of a generational chain and that we do well to return to those traditions, those “wells” and review what we have learned and what we wish to leave behind. Judaism is a powerful faith that celebrates our linkage “from generation to generation”.
Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

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