Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
November 17, 2001 2 Kislev 5762
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary
The disputes over water rights between Isaac and the King of Gerar have a contemporary ring. Beyond the current Intifada looms the persistent shortage of water that threatens Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians alike. With the Kinneret at its lowest ebb ever and aquifers depleted and increasingly polluted, the region's bitter adversaries are at least united in their hopes for a rainy winter.
But I wish to take the narrative fragments of Toldot in a different direction. I detect another motif in Isaac's tenacity to retain the wells of his father. Like Abraham, he lives in the Negev near Beer-sheba. He insists on his right to the wells dug by his father and defies those who jealously filled them in by reexcavating them. We are told that he even went so far as to give them the same names that his father had bestowed upon them (Genesis 26:18).
That last detail is for me the key to the symbolic significance of the episode. Isaac struggles to retain access to the sources of Abraham's faith. Memory is the link between father and son that makes of a fading past a vital present. It is the wellspring ever at risk of being blocked up or contaminated which sustains cultural continuity. In his efforts to keep open the paternal wells, Isaac bespeaks his determination to preserve and transmit the religious heritage of a lifelong quest.
But the story conveys not only the passion of loyalty. It also alludes to the complexity of transmission. Does the name Beer-sheba, given first by Abraham and then again by Isaac to what would become the best-known city in the Negev, mean "well of oath (shevuah )" or "well of seven (sheva )?" In both instances the naming of the place occurs as a result of a peace pact entered into by Abraham, and a generation later by Isaac, with Abimelech, the King of Gerar, and his commander-in-chief, Phicol. For Abraham, the etymology of the name is connected to the oath taken at the pact (Genesis 21:31); for Isaac, it is linked to the number seven (Genesis 26:33). While both are possible, the divergence suggests two strands of memory.
The fact is that memory is a function of its transmitters. Human perception does not manifest the precision of a camera. People often see the same sequence of events differently and surely remember them disparately. The Torah is a tapestry of memories, which is what makes it such a multivocal book. Its redactors worked with a high degree of tolerance for divergent traditions of equal sanctity preserved by different sectors of ancient Israel. The seams of the tapestry are not always hard to detect.
Our parashah contains a particularly visible example of a narrative recounted along two distinct story lines. What is the reason that Jacob leaves his parents in Canaan to return to the family of his mother in Paddan-aram? Is it to flee the wrath of his brother, Esau, whose first-born blessing he has just deceptively extracted from his blind father? Or is it to select a wife from his own clan as had his grandfather for his father before him? Together, both reasons add up to a plot that is overdetermined. Modern scholarship prefers to see in the narrative the preservation of two separate traditions.
The more prominent tale (in Chapter 27) focuses with unmatched pathos on the bitter rivalry between Jacob and Esau. Surrounding this account like bookends, though, we find a muted version that stresses the primacy of geneological purity. To the chagrin of his parents, Esau at age forty marries two Hittite women from the native population (26:34-35). After the narrative break for Jacob's theft of his brother's blessing, this version resumes with a lament by Rebecca to Isaac over Esau's betrayal (27:46). Jacob is summoned, without the slightest rebuke for his previous duplicity (a telltale sign that this second tradition has no inkling of the first) and charged to find a mate in Laban's household. In compliance with his parents' aversion to the Canaanites, Esau too betook himself to another branch of the clan, the family of Ishmael, to take yet a third wife (28:1-9).
In brief, the strategy of the redactors of the Torah was inclusion, to defer to the sacred memory of different faith communities without undue regard for discrepancies. When back in 1964 in Understanding Genesis , Prof. Nahum Sarna insisted that the "non-unitary origin of the Pentateuch has survived as one of the finalities of biblical scholarship," he asked: "Is it not to circumscribe the power of God in a most extraordinary manner to assume that the Divine can only work effectively through the medium of a single document, but not through four? Surely God can as well unfold His revelation in successive stages as in a single moment of time (xxiv)." Hebrew Scripture vibrates with religious pluralism precisely because it is predicated on the respect for multiple experiences of God.
But what is left of revelation if we make of Torah a tapestry of memories? Permit me to respond with an image, the only language suitable for speaking of the Infinite. After Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil, "they heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day (Genesis 3:8)." Eden was not an extension of God, but God's presence could surely be felt in it. So too in the Torah, we find a place of encounter for the religiously hungry, a testament to the human possibility of experiencing the Divine.