Shabbat Toldot: Digging Down to Rise Up

This week’s parashat hashavua describes the difficulty Isaac encounters in establishing himself in the aftermath of his father’s death. Apparently the locals do not respect him as they did his father. 

 Isaac dug again the wells of water that were dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death. He called them after the names his father had called them….the herdsmen of Gerar fought with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying “the water is ours.” He called that well Esek (“contention”)….they dug another well, and they fought for that too, and he called it Sitnah (hatred). He left there and dug another well, and no one fought over it. He called it Rehovot (“wide open spaces”). (Gen.26.18-22).

This is one of the few stories the Torah preserves of Isaac as an adult. In a well, he is establishing his own relationship to the Land of Israel. There is a hint in this story of the perennial Jewish experience in the land of Israel: esek, sitnah, and finally, we hope, rehovot (which is the name of an early modern Zionist Israeli town). 

It is striking that Isaac tries to re-establish his father’s wells, and has to be pushed into digging his own. In Torah study, “digging down” is a common metaphor for seeking insight. Here, Isaac tries to understand his life by following his father’s footsteps, and repeating his acts (he too will journey to escape famine, he too will call his wife his sister, he too will have children who need to be separated). 

But re-digging his father’s wells does not work. In order to understand his own life and live it, he has to find water, and wisdom, on his own. 

What is the way to establish oneself, on one’s own, having moved past the shadow of one’s parents? What is the way to dig which leads to blessing? How do overcome all that we inherit, and find it for ourselves? Where is that living water of wisdom?


Sometimes, perhaps, instead of a great sea

It is a narrow stream running urgently


far below ground, held down by rocky layers

the deeds of mother and father, helpless sooth-sayers


of how our life is to be, weighted by clay,

the dense pressure of thwarted needs, the replay


of old misreadings, by hundreds of feet of soil,

the gifts and wounds of the genes, the short or tall


shape of our possibilities, seeking

and seeking a way to the top, while above, running


and stumbling this way and that on the clueless ground

another seeker clutches a dowsing-wand


which bends, then lifts, then straightens, everywhere,

saying to the dowser, it is there, it is not there,


and the untaught dowser believes, does not believe,

and finally simply stands on the ground above.


Till a sliver of stream finds a crack and makes its way

slowly, too slowly, through rock and earth and clay.

 (excerpted from “The Stream”, Mona Van Duyn, Letters from a Father; NY: Athenaum, 1982)


Shabbat is for memory and for musing. On this Shabbat, let memory come to you as water, bringing you closer to the wisdom of our parents that is not inherited until we dig down for ourselves.

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