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Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:8)

“Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of fresh water.” (Genesis 26:19)

Parashat Toldot reads like a soap-opera: parents play favorites with their children, spouses conspire, and brothers end up estranged. It’s no wonder the Rachel-versus-Isaac-and-Jacob-versus-Esau drama draws everybody’s attention. Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997; scholar who revolutionized the teaching of the weekly Torah portion worldwide) points out one of Toldot’s other significant messages, hidden in plain sight and often overlooked.

Isaac settles in Gerar and becomes a wealthy man. This triggers the enmity of the local community of Philistines, who plug up the wells Abraham, Isaac’s father, had dug a generation ago (Gen. 26:12-14). This makes no sense; in an arid desert region, wells mean life—for everyone. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785 – 1865; German rabbi and scholar) assigns symbolic value to the wells, claiming they represent the flowing of ethical monotheism—the true source of real life—and a threat to the local practices.

So Avimelech, the local king, expels Isaac, saying, “Go away from us, because atzamta mimenu rav, you have become much greater than us” (Gen. 26:16). But mimenu, than us, can also mean from us. Now Avimelech’s fear becomes anger and his declaration an accusation: whatever it is you have, you took from us (Breishit Rabah 64:6). This malign trope foreshadows Lavan’s accusation to Jacob (Gen. 31:1), and Pharoah’s against the Israelites in Egypt (Ex. 1:9) and echoes throughout Jewish history from Gerar to Squirrel Hill, PA. Isaac responds by re-digging the wells three times, assigning them the same names as Abraham (Gen. 26:22).

Judaism has always been counter-cultural. And its response to anger and hatred remains the same today as in Isaac’s time: to keep digging the wells.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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