This week’s parshah is Tol’dot (25.19-28.), the sixth parashah of Breisheet/Genesis and the Torah. It begins with וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק These are the (stories, generations) of Yitz’khak… (25.19). The primary reason seems to be to clarify that Yitz’khak is also Avraham’s son. The first 18 verses of Chapter 25 are the end of parashah Chayei Sarah. It begins with Avraham’s marriage to K’turah, the births of the sons she bore him, and their descendants; Avraham’s death and his burial by both his sons Yitz’khak and Yishmael; and Yishmael’s progeny. In this parashah we get the largest glimpse into Yitz’khak’s nature. In the rabbinic imagination, Yitz’khak is our passive patriarch. A closer reading of Tol’dot tells a different story.
Riv’kah has trouble conceiving. Yitz’khak and Riv’kah both pray for children, to no avail. Yitz’khak makes a special plea on behalf of his beloved, and soon she becomes pregnant. However, her pregnancy is not easy. The children struggle within her and she goes to inquire of the Eternal. The Eternal answers that Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger. (25.23) Riv’kah gives birth to twin boys: a red and hairy boy who is named Eisav, and a second son, born clutching his brother's heel, is named Yaakov.
Eisav becomes a skillful hunter and outdoorsman. Yaakov stays in the family camp. Yitz’khak favors Eisav, while Riv’kah favors Yaakov. One day, Eisav returns home from the field hungry and pleads with Yaakov to give him some of the stew he is cooking. Yaakov bargains with Eisav to give him, Yaakov, his birthright as firstborn in exchange for a portion of the stew. Eisav protests, but accepts the barter.
A famine comes to Canaan, and Yitz’khak takes his family to Egypt via G’rar. When he arrives there, The Eternal tells him not to go to Egypt. The Eternal also tells Yitz’khak that he will receive all the blessings promised to Avraham. When the townsmen inquire regarding his wife, Yitz’khak tells them that Riv’kah is his sister, fearing that he might be killed in order for them to take Riv’kah. She is brought to king Avimelekh. He eventually catches Riv’kah and Yitz’khak playing/flirting with each other. He figures out what’s going on and reprimands Yitz’khak. Yet, Avimelekh also decrees that no one touches either of them. Yitz’khak remains in G’rar. He sows crops, and miraculously harvests a hundred times more than a field's normal yield. Yitz’khak thrives, and his neighbors grow jealous.
With the blessing of The Eternal, Yitz’khak leaves Avimelekh and begins the process of restoring his father’s wells that were filled with earth by the people of G’rar after Avraham’s death. Avraham’s long journey with a large household could only have been supported through a system of wells. Each of the wells was named to establish his rights. The best known is Beer Sheva, or B’er Sheva, meaning Seven Wells or something similar. Conventional thinking says that Yitz’khak restores and reestablishes the names given by Avraham to certify his rights. Practical as it is, I see a deeper meaning.
Yitz’khak’s men dig another well and it reveals mayim chayim, living waters, the most precious water. The G’rar Valley shepherds claim the water is theirs, and Yitz’khak names it hab’eir Eseik, the well of quarrel. He and his men dig another well, and its ownership is also contested. Yitz’khak names it Sit’nah, hostility.
Yitz’khak moves on and another well is dug. When there is no contention, he names it R’khovot, spaciousness or expansion. This quality is reinforced by his statement, Now the Eternal has granted us ample space to increase in the land. (26.22) From there, Yitz’khak goes to B’eir Sheva.
As we assess our transition from the current administration to the next, from months of disease and death to the hope of a different future with vaccines, I’ve been wondering what are the wells that need to be dug out within our country and our human family. What is the rubble, the stoppages that need to be removed so we may see how we are connected through the deep broad well of our Common Humanity and our common history with all its beauty and magnificence as well as its deep scars/pain and disappointment?
Clearing Avraham’s wells, removing whatever pebbles, sticks, and stones that clogged them, was a means of healing for Yitz’khak. Restoring the names metaphorically restored his relationship to Avraham. From a place of wholeness, he can experience the living waters and the Source of Living Waters. When Yitz’khak is confronted by the G’rar Valley shepherds, he names the quarrelsome and hostile experiences and leaves them behind. In moving past the quarrels and the hostility, without being either, he draws on deeper resources to find spaciousness and Divine Blessing.
The Source of Living Waters, M’kor Mayim Chayim, is an Endless Reservoir that is always with us and is the Source of our Common Humanity. We can protect ourselves from those who hate us and want us dead without ourselves becoming haters and killers. We are required to remember that each person is made in the Divine Image (1.16) and that The Eternal, our God, has a covenant with all humanity (8.21-22).
With that in mind, disagreeing with me ought not be the basis by which someone becomes my enemy. It takes deep listening to meet hostility with compassion. Many times, my approach changes the tone of the conversation. The few times it doesn’t, I name what I am experiencing. I share what I think I’m hearing: quarrelsomeness, hostility, fear, longing for connection. In doing so, I am attempting to create openings to move the conversation. Experiencing none, I can leave all, including myself, in peace: no vengeance, no condemnation. When I am able to do so, I am walking the path of Yitz’khak and I find soothing spaciousness in M’kor Mayim Chayim, Source of Living Waters, because I leave my distant cousin with the blessing of peace as I leave with peace.
I know many of you, dear readers, are tired, experiencing anxiety regarding how big the workload is, and possibly terrified by the amount of hate there is in our country, and around the world. I feel the need to let you know you are not alone. It’s also important to know that the workload has always been huge, and “hate” rarely disappears. In the specific context of our country, it’s over 400 years old.
By enhancing our spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical tools, we can transform ourselves. In transforming ourselves, we have the potential to transform those around us and those we encounter. They then have the potential to transform others, setting in motion the possibility that they will transform others who will transform others who… So, I invite you to rest. Renew and recharge yourself with love and compassion. Take what you need from this teaching, and continue your part of the work to transform yourself so that you influence the transformation of others, our country, and the world. Yitz’khak was far from passive. He just took another path. I hope to see you on one of these or another path. Shabbat Shalom.
Sabrina Sojourner is the founder of Training the Heart to Listen and the Co-founder of Khazbar Institute.
 A portion of this commentary originally appeared in Washington Jewish Week, November 7, 2018  For the first time, I noted that K’turah and Hagar, and perhaps some other unnamed women, are referred to as Avraham’s “concubines.” That it’s plural refutes the notion that K’turah is Hagar. They are clearly two different women whose sons are treated generously and differently from Yitz’khak, the son of his wife Sarah.
© Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2020