By Rabbi Alan Iser
Much of his life, the patriarch Isaac appears to be a passive figure in the events that swirl around him: his near sacrifice at the hands of his father; a marriage match with a cousin; and the deception and “stealing” of the blessing for the firstborn, intended for Esau, by his wife and son.
As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks characterized him, he is the least original of the three patriarchs. He is not a spiritual pioneer like Abraham, nor does his life have dramatic ups and downs like Jacob.
In our Torah portion, Isaac even has a similar dispute over wells with the Philistines as did his father. Indeed, the Torah reports that initially Isaac dug anew the wells Abraham had unearthed that the Philistines then stopped up, giving the wells the same names as did his father (Genesis 26:18). But Isaac finally manages to dig new wells to which he gives his own names, Esek (contention) and Sitnah (harassment) The Philistines quarrel with him over the first two of these Isaac wells, but finally desist when he digs the third, named Rehovot.
Rabbi Simchah Bunem of Psciche, one of the early Chasidic masters, sees great significance in this seemingly mundane story. Isaac first re-digs Abraham’s wells, that is to say, attempts to follow his father’s spiritual path. However, just imitating someone else will not work. Isaac then discovers that he needs to find his own way to God, and thus digs his own wells.
Every Jew must approach the service of God by digging a well with their own essence and, thereby, cling to the creator. At first, this well may not work for your own soul, thus Isaac’s first two wells are the subjects of disputes with the Philistines, which represent contentious forces within Isaac himself in his search for his identity.
In other words, he must overcome his own inner demons and conflicts. Finally, through persistence, he arrives at his rightful destination, Rehovot, literally spaciousness or wide open, the place where his conflicts are resolved and he achieves wholeness.
It is noteworthy that immediately after the completion of the well named Rehovot, Isaac merits an appearance from God, who reaffirms the Abrahamic promises of blessing and offspring. Only when Isaac has achieved his own spiritual identity in the course of his life’s journey does God speak directly to him.
There are several lessons for us today from Isaac’s digging of the wells. It is important, like Isaac, to be a link in the chain of tradition; not all of us can be bold innovators like Abraham. But we cannot stop there. To borrow from another Chasidic teaching based on the first blessing of the Amidah, we must invoke our God and the God of our ancestors: our own approach to God and Jewish tradition as well as the rich heritage of the past.
If we are going to forge a Jewish identity for ourselves that can sustain us through the highs and lows of life, we have to dig our own wells.
Rabbi Alan Iser is an adjunct professor of theology at St. Joseph’s University and St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and teaches at the Conservative Yeshiva of Jerusalem. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.