A friend of mine recently shared with me how ambivalent she felt about the holocaust while she was growing up. Her parents seemed so connected to the tragic stories they would tell her, while she found it difficult to receive them. She considered her parents to be stuck in a rut, digging the same hole that only led to sadness and fear. After the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue two weeks ago, however, she found herself re-examining her relationship with the past – and wondering if she had been willing to let in the stories her parents had wanted to share with her, if it would have provided her much needed resilience in the face of these hard times.
I know that not everyone here today wrestles to connect with the legacy of the Shoah in the same way that my friend did. And yet, her struggle represents the next chapter of the Jewish people. The deeper we get into the 21st century, the further away the lived experience of the holocaust will be, and the harder the task of making this painful story into a meaningful and enduring one.
It so happens that this week’s parsha, Toledot, is the perfect backdrop for an exploration of continuity. There are many exciting things that happen in this parasha – Jacob buys Esau’s birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, and Rebecca tricks her husband Isaac into bestowing his blessing on Jacob, instead of his favorite son Esau – but it is the less memorable parts of this parsha that I’d like to focus on. The story of Isaac and the wells that he dug.
Isaac is the biblical patriarch which we have the least information about. While Abraham went on an epic search to follow God and find meaning, and Jacob was the father of 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel, Isaac seems woefully stuck in between these great men. And we find him, in chapter 26 of Genesis, literally stuck digging wells.
Rabbi Adin Steinzalts points out that to begin something is difficult, but it is far more challenging to continue things. Once the spark of inspiration has run its course, the daily energy required to sustain, without the fire of newness, can be almost impossible to summon. It’s the new business venture that gives way to the tedium of bookkeeping. Or the wide eyed child who becomes a rebellious teenager. All the more so, Steinzalts says, continuing our parent’s legacy is that much more difficult.
And yet Isaac does just that – he settles in Gerar, in the land of the Philistines and sets about digging wells – the very wells that his father Abraham had dug in his day when he also lived in Gerar.
וַיָּ֨֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣֣ר אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣֣ת הַמַּ יִ֗֗ם אֲשֶׁ֤֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙֙ בִּימֵי֙֙ אַבְרָהָ֣֣ם אָבִ֔֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖֖י מ֣֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑֑ם
And Isaac dug anew the wells of water that they had dug in the days of his father Abraham, which the philistines had closed up after the death of Abraham.
But he didn’t just redig the wells, he also named them the same name that his father had named them.
וַיִּקְרָ֤֤א לָהֶן֙֙ שֵׁמ֔֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥֥א לָהֶ֖֖ן אָבִֽיו
And he called them the same names that his father had called them.
And it is the fact that Isaac continued the work of his father, that actually created the Jewish people. Far more than the epic quest that Abraham set out on to find God, or the multitudinous family that Jacob sired, it is Isaac’s persistence that made the Jewish story into a generational story, and not just a one-hit-wonder. And each of you keep this story alive every time you come to shul. Bake Challah, light candles, say a blessing. Every time you continue our story connects you to a story that has been being told for thousands of years, and the act of continuing to tell it is a beautiful courageous act of faith.
I heard an amazing story from a survivor named Sam a few weeks ago, and though it contained some incredible moments of heroism and miracles, it is a humble moment that I want to share with you. When Sam and 4 other children were sent to a work camp towards the end of the war, they were saved from the fate of most children (too young to work) and allowed to enter the camp provided they remain there totally unseen. The Jewish inmates of the camp, upon hearing that children would be arriving, gathered at the barbed wire fence to receive them. They were all adults, and most of them hadn’t seen a child since the beginning of the war. They were parents and grandparents, most of them having lost their own children years ago, and they stood at the gates, hungry to receive these 5 Jewish children. Sam described how they lifted them over the threshold and kissed and hugged and sang and danced and passed them around the circle from person to person. He said he felt like the Torah on Simchat Torah.
Now there are two incredible things about this story. One is that in Sam’s world, less than a century ago, the reference point he had for the most joyous, most ecstatic experience, was Simchat Torah. And the other is that these adults were so moved by the presence of these children because they understood that through the mere fact of their existence, of the potential to keep these children alive, the Jewish people could be saved.
When I look around the room tonight, I see all of you as well diggers. Like Isaac, you too are showing up for the daily work of digging into the earth, often in the same places that have been dug before, in hopes of finding may’im chayim – living waters. And the fact is, most days, this search is arduous, the beauty and the depths don’t reveal themselves until so late in the process, and it can be hard to stay the course and to explain to others why you keep showing up. Judaism is like that. It is a deep and powerful well, but we have to dig so so so far down to get there, sometimes we can feel lost in the process.
I have heard it explained that Jewish time exists in a spiral, not a circle. A circle would mean that we are living the same stories over and over again, that the pains and traumas of the past are destined to be re-lived in every generation, or the next. But when we think of it as a spiral – that every year we show up for the same holidays as a different person, that every holiday coincides with a slightly different time of year, and that the world around us is constantly changing… suddenly the story of the Jewish people is an anchor in time that can be an incredible source of strength and sustenance. Let it be that in the years to come, we will continue to dig into our past – not as pits – but as wells of living water.