Abraham and Isaac

Isaac uncovers the wells that his father Abraham had dug, an act that appears to be a fundamental part of his divine service. The Torah recounts the episode as follows:

Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them up, filling them with earth…And Isaac dug again the wells of water which had been dug in the days of Abraham his father and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.1

Our sages elaborated on the matter of the wells as well; many midrashim exist on the subject, attributing to them great importance and significance.

Abraham’s divine service is to go and dig into the earth, and to discover that it holds living waters. Broadly considered, his task is to find the meaning in things. Abraham is known for this quality: We learn that even at age three, he is constantly searching for meaning, recognizing his Creator. Thus, the Midrash2 compares Abraham to a man who, upon seeing a building on fire, asks: “Does this building have an owner? When the building is on fire, who watches over it?” It is very simple for a person to ignore the realities of this world, passing them by all his life without paying attention to them. Abraham is not this way; he looks all around him and asks questions, digging wells and discovering water within.

Isaac’s divine service, whose essence is encapsulated in the words, “And Isaac dug again the wells that Abraham his father had dug”,3 is to pattern his actions after Abraham’s, and in a certain respect this is the most difficult task that a person can undertake. Isaac emulates Abraham not just in one particular practice but in his entire life; he follows the same path, step after step. What happened to his father involving the king of the Philistines happens to him as well, and the same is true of many other incidents.

All that Isaac does is redig the wells that his father dug and give them the same names that his father gave. This creates a problem that anyone who grew up in a good Jewish home and chooses to continue the path of his forebears has faced. If someone has to dig new wells, he lives in a different world, with different sources of inspiration and a different dynamic. But for Isaac, and for everyone like Isaac, there is no point of revival and renewal in one’s own right. These are the same names and the same places – everything is the same. The wells that he puts so much effort into digging are not truly new wells at all.

The problem of Isaac’s divine service is part of a larger dilemma – the difficulty of renewal, the challenge of redigging the wells that one’s father already dug. Can this really be considered an accomplishment? What does one achieve by simply retreading old ground?

The Midrash comments on the verse, “These words that I command you today,”4 explaining, “‘That I command you today’ – they [Torah and mitzvot] should not be in your sight like an obsolete ordinance to which no one pays any attention, but like a new one in which everyone takes a keen interest.”5 In the same vein, Rashi comments on the verse, “Today God your Lord commands you to obey these laws,”6 saying, “Each day they should be in your sight like something new, as though you had received these commands on that very day.” The suggestion that our sages offer – to treat old mitzvot as if they are new and exciting – only seems to accentuate the problem. New tasks are relatively easy to muster excitement for. When it is only as though they were new – that is much more difficult.

The ability to continue

According to the Midrash,7 we should thank God for creating us with the attribute of forgetfulness, for as a result we can learn things more than once. If we were unable to forget, then whenever we would study some subject a second time, the experience would be identical to the first time. Now, thanks to forgetfulness, our learning always contains an aspect of renewal. Nevertheless, sometimes it is easier to learn three new pages than to review one page, for in new things there is power and rejuvenation. The process of review, of relearning old ideas – fascinating as they may be – will inevitably be deficient simply because it is not new.

The saying goes that all beginnings are difficult. As true as this may be, it is not nearly as difficult to begin as it is to continue – and that is the challenge faced by the second generation, the generation that cannot be innovative, that must not be innovative. It must only continue, and it can only succeed in this by marshaling the strength and the power of renewal. Compared to continuing, beginning is easy; reaching the finish line is easy as well. What is truly difficult is to continue after the enthusiasm of the beginning has passed. For some people, the excitement of the new lasts for five years; for others, it lasts only five months or five minutes. But no matter what, the excitement ultimately ends and a question presents itself: What happens next?

The ability to persist, to continue, is what distinguishes one person from another and, on a larger scale, between one people and another.

The true test is if the second generation has the ability to maintain the same energy, inspiration, and enthusiasm – or at least the same pace – as the first generation. For the first generation, it is easy to break the mold; to the second generation, however, monotony and decay pose a real danger.

In Parashat Vayera, God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? For I have known him, so that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of God.”8 The man who holds the secret to the future is not merely one who gives his children instructions and orders; rather, he is the one who can successfully encourage his children and posterity to continue his direction.

A look at earlier and later generations shows that the personal ability of an individual does not guarantee his ability to transmit his greatness to his posterity. There are people who by their very nature cannot produce children and disciples like themselves, even though they may be great Jewish leaders. Moses, for example, did not produce a dynasty of great leaders. The dynasty that continued through the ages is that of the sons of Aaron, for Moses had no sons who could qualify as his successor. There cannot be a “Moses II,” let alone a glorious Mosaic line.

Isaac’s whole essence is his ability to carry God’s cause to the next stage in history. In this sense, it can be said, literally, that “this is the story of Isaac, son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac,”9 and in exactly the same sense: “This is the story of JacobJoseph.”10 The ability to raise a son who will be able to carry on the cause, to bring to fruition what he had begun, is Abraham’s genius – his story. Without Isaac, without Isaac’s ability to provide continuity, Abraham would not be Abraham at all. Rather, he would be like any of the eminent personalities that preceded him. Abraham was preceded by Enoch, but the two could not have been more different. While Enoch was an angel, his son was not an angel. There have been all sorts of people throughout history who were essentially “dead ends,” whose legacies could not continue after their demise. Likewise, the difference between Saul and David was apparently rooted not only in the nature of their respective personalities but also in that Saul was incapable of fashioning for himself a successor of his own kind.

In this sense, just as Abraham begets Isaac, Isaac “makes” Abraham by giving him relevance and an enduring legacy. If Abraham’s sons had been only Ishmael and the sons of Ketura, his narrative would have been only a passing episode. For it does not matter who these sons were, or what they did with their lives. To be sure, the Talmud records that Ishmael atoned for his sins, a claim that is supported by the fact that his children are given his name. Nevertheless, in spite of his later righteousness, Ishmael and his line do not constitute continuity for the legacy of Abraham.

The ability to create continuity is not only important in itself and significant for the future, but it even changes the significance of the past. Therefore, one must ultimately judge a person based on the larger picture: what he did and what is left after him. A person is judged according to the deeds that he performed during his lifetime and according to the events that he indirectly effects after his lifetime. The greater his influence, the more he retroactively changes the total image of his essence as an individual. There could be an individual who was only a minor figure during his lifetime but who ultimately succeeds in reaching major accomplishments – even if these are achieved a hundred years after his death. Even after a person’s death, the actions of his children and grandchildren can change the image of the person himself. The Midrash often notes that there are wicked people whom one should not judge without taking into consideration the whole range and entire network of their descendants, and from that vantage point one is forced to judge them differently.

Rabbi Isaac Luria taught11 that the verse, “Isaac favored Esau because game was in his mouth,” 12 alludes to the soul of Rabbi Meir, who, as we know from other sources,13 was a descendant of Esau, and that is the “game” in Esau’s mouth. When Isaac sees Esau, he sees not only Esau but also Rabbi Meir, and therefore is faced with a problem: What should be done with Esau? Should he reject Esau or accept him? When Esau asks, “How should salt be tithed?”14 he does not ask out of hypocrisy; there truly exists in him – if not in practice then in potential – an aspect that will one day manifest itself as the great tannah Rabbi Meir. It is Rabbi Meir’s tone that we hear in his question. If we view a person as a whole, including his past, present, and future, the aspect of Rabbi Meir within Esau cannot be discounted.

The uncircumcised Philistines

Isaac redigs his father’s wells, after “the Philistines had stopped them up (sitemum), filling them with earth.”15 The use of the word “sitemum” implies that the Philistines made the wells ordinary or insignificant (stam). Many instances in Tanach label the Philistines “uncircumcised,”16 and this designation is the root of what they are all about, not just esoterically. The Philistines create a reality where everything is covered, and everything is insignificant. A troubling passage in the Talmud17 relates that Adam reversed his circumcision; that is, he was created circumcised but then rendered himself uncircumcised. This is a type of person who makes a conscious and constant effort to become a man of stam, of utter insignificance.

The Philistines are not fundamentally evil. Although they are called “the uncircumcised Philistines,” the Torah does not speak of their sinfulness or abominable behavior. By contrast, we find lists of sins and transgressions entitled, “the practices of the land of Egypt” and “the practices of the land of Canaan,”18 but there are no “practices of the land of the Philistines.” Similarly, a look at Israel’s contact with the Philistines over the years shows that although the Philistine kings – Avimelech and even Achish – were not just and merciful, on the whole they were decent people, rational actors who followed accepted norms of behavior.

What reveals their fundamental character is the following: “The Philistines had stopped them up.” The Philistines consistently follow accepted norms of behavior; they are not especially righteous or wicked. When an important question or moral dilemma arises, instead of taking one side or another, the Philistines “stop up” the entire issue at hand. Instead of denying the existence of God, the Philistines avoid the question altogether. When the Philistines commit sins, they never do so out of spite; they sin because, “That’s just the way it is.” The Philistines dull and deflate everything they encounter, refraining from lending any special significance to their actions. By following this path of least resistance, the Philistines create for themselves a world of randomness. Instead of fastening locks to the mouths of Abraham’s wells, thus barring people from using them, they “stopped them up,” essentially claiming that they never held any water to begin with. This course of action should not surprise us – the Philistines stop up all the “wells” that they find in life, refusing to come to grips with the water within them.

This attitude of stam – the modern Hebrew equivalent of a shrug – is extremely powerful. For one thing, it requires neither proof nor support, neither character nor meaning. If a person asks a question or presents a topic for consideration, it is the simplest thing to diminish it, responding with this verbal shrug. To be a Philistine means that when someone presents a meaningful or inspiring point, the response is to immediately fill it with earth. Philistines do not poison wells, God forbid; they merely stop them up. This is a contagious phenomenon, for after a while the person who posed the original question will no longer search for a life of meaning; he, in turn, will adopt the attitude of the Philistines, growing accustomed to life in a world of stam.

“The Philistines had stopped them up”

How does this process, this attitude of stam, develop within a person? Let us answer this question with the following scenario: A person attends a Torah lesson for the first time, and he is greatly inspired. He meditates upon the ideas he has learned, becomes enthusiastic, and is preoccupied with them day and night. How can he sit quietly after hearing such brilliant words of Torah? After a while, he attends another lesson, but this new lesson has no effect on him at all. So he attends another and another, his interest and enthusiasm slowly but steadily fading after each lesson. A person who reads a joke book from cover to cover experiences this same phenomenon: He reads one joke after another, in stitches at first, but by the end barely able to crack a smile.

A person who is constantly steeped in the world of Torah and piety is liable to lose the power of rejuvenation, not because he does not understand, but precisely because he understands. After all, he has already heard everything; and if, by chance, he has never heard a particular idea, he has certainly heard something like it. And even if the idea itself is totally novel, he is still uninterested, as he is already familiar with the subject.

It can happen that someone, during Shacharit, is struck by the sudden epiphany that he loves God. This is a rare thing, which happens perhaps once a year. Will he then jump onto the table and shout, “I love God!”? Generally not. But why not? The answer is that there is a certain element of stam that dictates that – even when a point of inspiration comes to him – it would not be proper: One must follow the practice of the land of the Philistines. In Jerusalem’s German Colony, there is a law that prohibits building above three stories. Similarly, there are people who have an inner law to that effect, not to build above three stories, and not to delve beyond a certain depth: It is against municipal regulations. This is the custom of the land of the Philistines.

How does this happen to a person? It happens because all the wells that he owns and that he has ever owned have been stopped up by Philistines and filled with earth. This happens not just to the elderly but to young people as well. One’s inner life is simply stopped up. Like sand dunes on the seashore, even if I do nothing to stop up the wells, little by little, time covers up everything. Where once there was a well of living water, now there remains only a small hole in the wilderness.

Throughout history, our sages have addressed the question of what can be done to protect oneself against this danger. The danger here is not that one will fall all at once. Rather, it is a gradual, hardly noticeable fall. Life wastes away, and when one finally dies, no one can tell the difference, since he had already been a walking corpse long before then.

When does a person begin to die? In truth, the process of dying can begin at any time in a person’s life. He can be sixteen years old, and yet in effect he is dying. He lacks only the final act of physical death, for a doctor to sign his death certificate, and then he can be buried. He does not know it yet, and his family does not know it yet, but for years he has been living without purpose, dragging himself along. In some cases this happens because people dry up; in other cases it is because they become frozen or stopped up with earth. But in all these cases, the attitude of stam is at work.

A similar phenomenon occurs in the case of people who freeze to death. Walking in extremely cold weather, they reach a stage where they are on the verge of falling asleep in the snow – and that is the great danger.

Why does this happen? The wear and tear of everyday life slowly affect the person so that he does not want to move or to grow; he becomes complacent, and he remains in the same spot.

This well had already been dug and excavated, but if it is not frequently redug anew so as to rediscover the water within, over the course of time it becomes stopped up, even without the involvement of Philistines. Even for the very individual who personally dug the well, after a while the earth penetrates his soul and the feeling of stam begins to pervade his life. What is required is constant attention to the task of spiritual revival and renewal.

Spiritual digging

The task of Isaac is to redig the wells and thus banish the infectious force of stam. On the one hand, this is easy work, for an opening has already been made, and Isaac already knows that there is something inside. On the other hand, this is a difficult assignment, for it involves no new discoveries. Despite the difficulty, Isaac pushes himself forward and redigs the wells.

Every morning, we recite the Shema. Some people recite the Ten Commandments daily as well. But in addition, one must also resolve to himself each and every morning that he is not a Philistine. That is to say, every day must be different from the previous one; every experience must be different from the next.

This is a very difficult task. After all, we are not talking about a sudden point of change and renewal, like a spontaneous decision to travel to the Amazon rainforest. Rather, it is the simple decision to make a change, even if one does not yet know how and where he will make it. It is a decision to stay in the same place, redigging the same wells. One will continue to read his prayers from the same siddur that he used yesterday, to recite the same blessings that he recited yesterday. Nevertheless, one must recite, over and over again, “I am not a Philistine.”

In addition, redigging old wells involves the same amount of physical labor as digging new wells. In the framework of each person’s life, whether he is leading a holy life or not, a conscious effort must be made to search for the meaning behind things, to open up wells and find the waters hiding within. To be sure, not everyone can reach the same level and the same achievements, but part of one’s success is a result of the spiritual effort that one expends.

One of the main ways of accomplishing this spiritual work is by asking new questions, something that has almost become second nature for the Jewish people. Whether one is facing a page of Talmud or a section of the siddur, the best way to explore and dig into things is by asking questions. One cannot always find the answers, but through questions one can always uncover important ideas and meaning.

Likkutei Torah19 notes that just as there is a mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply” in the physical realm, there is a similar mitzvah in the spiritual realm: One must reach at least one new Torah insight each day. This is true in the wider sense of this obligation as well. For even if the new insight is not always a spectacular innovation, and sometimes it may not even make sense, the main thing is not to suffice oneself with the world of stam. Instead, one must fight the world’s existing format and flux by raising questions.

One of the great hasidic rabbis (who was the rabbi of a small town in his youth and would often volunteer to serve as a merrymaker at weddings) would say that the essence of Hasidism is that one must constantly be asking, “Why?” about everything that one encounters in life. That is the way his life went, he said. One day, when he went to perform the ritual washing of the hands, this question of “Why?” occurred to him. He began to reflect on the ritual and stood there, towel on his shoulder, for two hours. He said that afterward, whenever he recited the blessing on the ritual, his level of devotion was higher than ever.

To reach the point where one feels the need to renew oneself – where one is able to consistently dig the well anew, asking “Why?”, “For what purpose?”, and “For what reason?” – requires much training and practice. One must train oneself to understand that “that’s just the way it is” is only a satisfactory answer for the Philistines. A Jew is not like a Philistine; he must constantly dig wells.

Not everyone can break new ground, and not everyone can dig new wells. What everyone can and must do is to take the old wells and rediscover them for himself as an entirely new creation.