Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Wells We Dig (portion Toldot)

Issac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.

In many ways, this line—from our weekly Torah portion, Toldot—captures the essence of Isaac’s character.  Sandwiched between Abraham, the first Jew, and Jacob, the father of Israel’s tribes, Isaac is primarily a transitional figure.  He is, at heart, a conservator: he guards his revolutionary father’s legacy, which will later be fleshed out and re-defined by his son.  Isaac reminds us that it is often enough to re-dig old wells of knowledge and truth, and preserve their traditions.

But although Isaac is the most passive of the patriarchs, our parashah notes that he does, in fact, go on to dig and name three of his own wells.  He calls the first Eshek—Contention.  The second he names Sitnah—Deep Fear.  Last, but not least, he unearths the well that he calls Rehovot—Expansive.  And then, upon finishing this sacred work, he hears the voice of the Holy One issuing forth words of comfort: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

Isaac’s journey echoes our own.  Our challenge is to move away from strife and fear, towards openness.  We do this largely by digging deeply within ourselves, by mustering the faith and courage to confront that which divides and frightens us.  Only when we acknowledge the dark, narrow, hostile impulses that well up inside of us can we pass through them to a place of freedom and expansiveness.

As Rabbi Yael Levy writes:

Yitzhak stands at places of transition,
            Guarding the passage, showing the way.
He says to himself and to us:
Dig deeply. 
Don't be misled by struggle and contention.
Don't be stopped by fear.
This is never all there is.
Keep searching. Keep looking. Keep returning.
There is a way into the expanse
And the journey is continuous.
We rise.  We fall.  We rise again.
We gain perspective and lose it.
We are besieged by doubt and fear.
And we are released into the expanse of possibility
And the journey is continuous.

Reach deeply, Yitzhak calls,
And open to the presence of the Mystery.
For in every moment, the Holy One calls,
Do not be afraid. Wherever you are, with you, I am.

May our journeys this week and beyond move us from fear to faith, from narrowness to expansive freedom and possibility.

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