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His Father's Wells

A few weeks ago, our attention was turned once again to the space program. John Glenn, a true American hero, returned to space, and we celebrated the spirit of innovation, courage, and exploration that has always marked our country's best efforts. As we look at the exploration of space, whether through the mirror of current media coverage or through the prism of books and movies, we are awed by the many highly intelligent, creative and insightful people whose joint efforts push us deeper into the still largely unexplored region of space.

Some men and women of genius are innovators, and point us in new directions, down uncharted paths. Other men and women of genius are developers. They have the gift of recognizing the implications of a new idea or a revolutionary concept and the ability to find practical applications for it that change our world. Still others are adventurers. They are blessed with a sense of exploration and enterprise, and use the insights of the innovators and the wisdom of the developers to explore previously unknown regions.

Our culture often seems to honor the genius of innovators and adventurers more than that of developers. Yet, we know how important developers are to changes in all aspects of our lives, including science and technology, economics and politics, and arts, philosophy and religion. These people have the gift of seeing the utility in a scientific discovery, the power in a new concept, the potential of a new theory that is beyond the sight of the innovator. They have the talent for organization, structure, and planning that provide the foundation for successful adventure and exploration. Without their insight, courage and wisdom, their ability to "pick up the ball and run with it", the best efforts of the innovators would be for naught, and the adventurers would be left without tools. The developers are the people who build religious movements, who restructure social and political life, who change the way we see art, hear music and read books. In the imagery from this week's Torah portion, Toledot which tells the story of Isaac's developers, while drawing water from other's wells, learn to dig their own and to draw on their own sources of strength and wisdom.

The genius of each of our three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, fits the pattern of innovator, developer and adventurer respectively. Each patriarch plays a decisive role in the unfolding of our people's most ancient experience. Each one is important. Each one should be honored. Yet, of our three patriarchs, Isaac always seems to live in the shadows of his father, Abraham, and his son, Jacob.

Unlike Abraham, the innovator, who survived a panoply of physical and spiritual ordeals to become the father of Judaism, Isaac's life was quiet and his spirituality was marked by silent meditation and thoughtful contemplation. Unlike Jacob, the adventurer, whose life story is one of struggle and conflict, Isaac appears as a soul dedicated to peace and tranquility.

In many ways, Isaac's life appears defined by the great issues in his father's and son's lives. Two powerful biblical stories frame our misunderstanding of Isaac as a passive character to whom life just happens. We remember Isaac as the sacrificial offering requested from his father, Abraham, by Abraham's God as a test of Abraham's faith (Genesis 22). We recall Isaac as the blind old man seemingly deceived by his own son, Jacob, in a plot to seize the paternal blessing that Isaac intended to bestow on Jacob's older twin brother, Esau (27).

Yet, even these events fit the view of Isaac as the developer of ideas. Isaac's willingness to follow Abraham to the altar on Mount Moriah (22:8) underscores the developer's willingness to commit his or her future to an idea whose implications only he or she may clearly see. Isaac's willingness to play into the deception staged by Rebecca (27:22) reflects the developer's ability to make things happen without necessarily imposing his or her will.

As committed as they are to the innovator's insight, developers do not blindly follow the innovator's lead. There comes a time when they take what they have learned and through their own wisdom and experience transform it and make it their own.

The defining moment in Isaac's adult life comes, surprisingly, just when he seems to be treading down the same road as did his father, Abraham. Like Abraham, Isaac seeks shelter in the Philistine city of Gerar during the time of famine. Like Abraham, Isaac, while in Gerar, pretends that his wife is his sister to protect his life and her honor. At that point, however, the patriarchs' paths diverge.

When the Philistines discover Abraham's deception through a dream sent by God to their king, they present him with gifts and send him away (20:14-16). On the other hand, when they realize Isaac's true relationship with Rebecca, they confront Isaac and scold him for undervaluing their sense of responsibility to him and his household (26:9-11). Although both Abraham's and Isaac's material success ultimately comes to them as a result of divine providence, Abraham is enriched by the gifts he received from the Philistines (20:14-16), while Isaac's wealth is the result of his own hard work (26:12-14).

The Philistines show proper respect for Abraham and permit him to go on his way in peace. Later, they enter into a covenant with Abraham that is sealed by a gift of seven lambs from Abraham to the their king. The Torah identifies the location of the parlay as Beer-sheba, whose name is explained as the "Well of the Seven" in reference to the seven (sheva) lambs.

On the other hand, the Philistines are jealous of Isaac's success and drive him away from the city of Gerar. Isaac moves slowly away from them. At each step in his journey, he reopens a well dug earlier by his father, Abraham, but he is forced to give up each of these wells to the Philistines and move further away. This continues until he digs his own well at a place he names Rechovot, which he interprets as "For now the Eternal has made room for us and we shall be fruitful in the land" (29:22).

It is at this point in our history when the Philistines come to Beer-sheba, which is adjacent to Rechovot, to make a treaty with Isaac. This time no gifts, but only oaths, are exchanged. After the treaty is concluded and the Philistines depart, Isaac's servants inform him that they have successfully dug another well, which Isaac names Shiba after the Hebrew word for oath, shevuah. The Torah then gives us another interpretation of the name Beer-sheba, as "the well of the oath" (26:33).

To achieve peace with the Philistines, Isaac needed to do more than follow in the footsteps of his father. Re-digging the wells Abraham had dug was not enough. It was only after Isaac dug his own wells and found his own water, that he was able to meet the Philistines as his own man and on his own terms.

This symbolizes the genius of developers. They take an idea and make it their own. They push it along and make it grow and soon they are not drinking old water from the wells of their predecessors, the innovators, but are rather drinking fresh water from their own improved and evolved wells.

They have taken the important step forward. They have made an idea work and have shown that it can be fruitful. And then we wait for the adventurer to come and take these new ideas and applications to places unforeseen by their innovators and developers. But that is Jacob's story.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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