Drinking the Waters of Torah

Toledot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 13, 2004 / 5765 | Torah Commentary

In rabbinic parlance, water stands for Torah. The association is basic and self-evident: both are life-giving elements. As water sustains organic life, so Torah nourishes Jewish life. Thus when Isaiah calls out, “Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money (Isaiah 55:1),” the Rabbis take his words as an invitation to enter the world of Torah.

The bedrock of synagogue practice, the regular reading of the Torah rests on this analogy. No more than three days are to go by without a public recitation of Scripture. According to the narrative of Exodus, after crossing the Sea of Reeds, the people of Israel wander in the wilderness for three days without any sign of water, quickly erasing any memory of previous miracles and leading to popular unrest (Exodus 15:22). The Talmud treats the episode metaphorically: Three days without exposure to any word of Torah was more than Israel could endure. And so, at some point, prophetic leadership established the custom of reading from the Torah liturgically, not only on Shabbat morning, but also on Shabbat afternoon and on Monday and Thursday mornings. The very day we complete one parashah in the morning, we start the next one in the afternoon and do so twice more during the week. To be removed from Torah is as fatal as a drought.

The identity of water and Torah is a rabbinic analogy, but offers a clue to interpreting an obscure fragment in the life of Isaac. Though our parashah bears the name “This is the story of Isaac,” it recounts tantalizingly little about his adult life. Yet the Torah deems it fitting to devote a half-dozen verses (Genesis 26:17-22) to tell us of Isaac’s efforts to restore to working order the wells built by his father. “Isaac 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” (26:18). The Philistines, in whose territory Isaac resided at the time, tried to block his plan, but he managed to reactivate at least three wells – and perhaps a fourth (26:32).

Commentators, both old and new, have stayed away from the passage. Its prosaic quality appears to add little to the biography of Isaac. I would like to suggest that the meaning of the fragment inheres in its implicit rather than explicit content. The episode points to the loyalty of Isaac to his father’s legacy. Isaac does not merely reside where his father once lived nor drink from the same water, but, more importantly, abides by the teachings his father embodied. The imagery of a son seeking to reappropriate the wells that sustained his father resonates with symbolic overtones of healing a grievous breach. It is no accident that the first time Isaac perceives the God who addresses him as the God of his father occurs directly after the restoration of the wells (26:24).

There is much in the Torah’s narrative to imply that Isaac’s loyalty to the faith of his father was badly strained by the ordeal of the “binding” at Mount Moriah. For one, Isaac does not return to Beersheba with Abraham (22:19). Had the concord and intimacy of their relationship been ruptured? Second, Isaac mourns intensely when Sarah dies, remaining inconsolable until Rebecca enters his life (24:67). Did he, perhaps, attribute her death after the “binding,” as the midrash does, to the unfathomable behavior of Abraham? Had he taken shelter in her protective love, rather than his father’s? Third, after his sons are born, Isaac prefers Esau, “a skilled hunter, a man of the outdoors” (25:27), who scarcely exhibits any interest in such matters as justice and righteousness that we identify with Abraham (18:19).

The tale of the wells is intended to modify that impression. Isaac did not remain permanently estranged from the faith of his father. He struggled to overcome the scars of his terror, to understand the silent anguish of his impervious father and the meaning of that searing event. He returned to remove the debris, which had covered and contaminated the wells, so that he might drink again from their sacred water.

But to internalize that legacy, he needed to prune it of its overwrought accretions, to regain its balance and integrity, to make it work for him. The philistines of every generation seek to curb the protean character of a healthy tradition. Transmission is a dynamic, interactive process governed by both responsiveness and reverence. The custodians of tradition must feel the pain of the faithful even as they heed the voice of God.

No one has caught the creative spirit of this dialectical relationship more sharply than the incomparable German writer Goethe: “What you have inherited (passively) from your ancestors, take hold of it (actively) in order to make it your own.”

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tol’dot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.