Jewish learning Generations and Their Wells
Parashat Toledot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
The narratives of Genesis, especially in readings for Va-Yera and Toledot, are an interweaving of two sets of tales. The better-known ones are the stories of our patriarchal family: the birth of sons and the conflicts between them, first Isaac and Ishmael, then Jacob and Esau.
Alternating with these chapters are accounts of our ancestors’ attempts to live among their neighbors, including repeated conflicts over wives, land, flocks, and wells. Given the terrain of the Land of Canaan, it is no surprise that water rights were an important issue. “Who dug this well?” was a question raised more than once, and the names attached to those diggings recall hostility and conflict. Finally, we are told in both chapters 21 and 26, they came to peace at Beersheva, maybe named as a place where an oath was sworn, or maybe a well that overflowed with a sevenfold amount of water—or perhaps both.
These chapters, in which both the ancestry and mission of Israel are first defined, were inherited by a people for whom life as wandering shepherds had become a distant memory. Later Jews did not fight over ownership of pasture lands or the digging of wells. Still, they passed these tales on from one generation to the next, certain that they contained great wisdom and guidance for their own very different lives. Countless generations of scholars and tradesmen, city-dwellers and town folk all over the western world, and now highly educated professional and business people scattered across the globe, gather in synagogues to read about the Abraham’s wanderings across the Negev or Isaac’s conflict over the wells in Gerar.
They are able to do this, of course, through the transforming power of Midrash. Jacob, the “simple man who dwelt in tents (*Gen. 25:27)” was remade by Midrash into the scholar, living in the twin tents of the Written and Oral Torah. Even when he “dwelt with Laban,” he kept all of the 613 commandments (32:5) of the still ungiven Torah. He did this because he had already inherited it from Abraham, who had “kept My guard (26:5),” which of course meant that he had lived the life of Torah precisely as the much later rabbis were to define it.
The wells that play such an important role in these chapters are turned into wellsprings of Torah or understanding. The fact that the Hebrew term for “well,” be’er, appears as though related to the verb-stem that means “explanation” or “commentary” was a helpful device for this transformation. “Is this well yours or ours?” now comes to mean: “Who has the proper interpretation of wisdom received from the past?” Both Isaac and Jacob, after all, had studied in the yeshivah of Shem and Ever, an elite academy that had preserved knowledge of God handed down through the generations, reaching all the way back to Eden.
But surely they were not the only students in that schoolroom. Melchizedek, who turned out to be “a priest of the most high God (14:18),” surely spent some years there as well. So too Abimelech, who seems to have known the laws of marriage, tithing, and oaths. Perhaps clever Laban had been to school there also. Who knows? Might they have all known each other and argued about the Torah of Eden, “back in the day?”
This question of interpretation thus touches on the very sensitive question of the relationship between Judaism and the ancient Near Eastern religions out of which it emerged. There is a voice within the tradition that clamors to deny any such connection. It is embodied in the well-known tale of Abraham smashing his father’s idols as the first step in proclaiming his new religion. The message of that tale is one of cultural revolution. The “pure” monotheism of Torah-religion has nothing to do with “paganism.” All those previously worshipped gods – whether in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Canaan, were “false,” the total opposite of the one true God of our faith. The tale of Abraham as the original iconoclast is backed up by the well-known psalm verses (Ps. 116:6-9) recited in our Hallel service: “Eyes have they but they see not; ears have they, but they hear not…Like them are those who make them,” etc.
But the account of Abraham’s progeny going off to yeshivah (“Who supervised the kosher kitchen there?” one might wonder) tells another story. The product of every cultural revolution continues to reflect much of the prior civilizational matrix out of which it emerged. (Think of Stalin and Putin as czars, or of the very Anglo-Saxon roots of our own political culture.) The notion of Y-H-W-H dwelling in heaven, or of worship by means of animal offerings on an altar, and lots more, are all artifacts carried over from the prior religious settings into biblical, and even rabbinic, Judaism. We create anew, even receive a new revelation, but we always build on the foundations, even the ruins, of that which came before us.
But we need to take yet another step. If all the sages in those ancient times studied in that yeshivah (and could we please add our foremothers to that student body, as we re-create it in our imagination), who is to say that our own version of the wisdom taught there is the only one worth learning? If ḥokhmah indeed existed before the creation of this world, as biblical sources clearly attest (Prov. 8; Job 28), might some memory of it not be present in the teachings preserved by other traditions as well? How might we open ourselves to learning from them as well, without risking our own unique path?
Isaac’s need to re-dig the wells that were left over from the times of Abraham says something different about the acquisition of wisdom. It is taken as an indication that each generation’s seekers, even within an inherited tradition, need to find their own pathways to inner truth. It was the Philistines who had stuffed up the wells, says the text. But we surely know that we can be our own “Philistines.” Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, an iconoclast within the pietistic world of Hasidism, explained it this way. Abraham served God with great humility, calling out: “I am but dust and ashes (18:27).” The Philistines, hearing him do so, all began to cry out: “Me too! I am dust and ashes as well!”—until the expression became utterly trivialized. The inner wellspring of serving God through humility became utterly stuffed up with meaningless words. Imitative piety can easily turn false, he is telling us, even in the context of a religion that is mostly conveyed by each generation imitating those came before it.
In next week’s portion, we will read about Jacob’s rolling the stone off the mouth of the well, in order to provide water for Rachel’s sheep. Here a Hasidic preacher suggests it is the “heart of stone” that keeps us from finding the flow of teaching that is waiting to emerge from our inner wellsprings. This is a Torah that is not just inherited and passed down, but needs to be renewed by the fresh water of new perspectives offered by each unique generation of its transmitters.
The many centuries of oppression Jews suffered caused those who saw themselves as guardians of tradition to define it in exclusive and narrow ways. It would best preserved and transmitted, they thought, if encased in a thick sheath of protective garb. Contact with the outside world should best be avoided, and any thought of external influences denied. New ideas and approaches had to be kept in check, always expressed in way that showed them as faithful to the past, or else expelled and denounced as heresies, as happened in the case of Hasidism itself.
But now we live in a time of freedom. It is time to replace those kotnot ‘or, the leather cases within which Torah was preserved, with kotnot or, “garments of light,” as the early sage Rabbi Meir once suggested. Letting some new light shine on our ancient wisdom, coming both from without and from deep within the hearts of new generations of readers and teachers, might help us rediscover the Torah of Eden, when it was nothing other than the Tree of Life.
Rabbi Arthur Green is Rector and Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts and a founder of the College’s Rabbinical School.