Of the three patriarchs, Isaac is the most enigmatic and cryptic. Much of his life is clouded in mystery and, in contrast to his father Abraham and his son Jacob, relatively little space within the Torah text itself is dedicated to the details of his life. And even when the events of his day are described, he is usually not the main character in the episode. His near-sacrifice, for example, is recalled more often to dramatize and stress the uniqueness of Abraham rather than that of Isaac.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav of blessed memory, avers that the amount of text assigned to Isaac’s life should not be seen as a diminution of his status and acclaim but instead an indication of his unique character in keeping with the specific trait accorded each of the Avot, the three patriarchs. Abraham represents “chesed,” kindness; Jacob stands for “emet,” truth; and Isaac is an exemplar of “gevurah,” strength. Abraham’s kindness represents a movement away from one’s self towards others. It expresses itself in an expansion of character. Isaac’s trait of strength, by contrast, is a retreat into a more hidden world with only God as his companion to commune with for much of his life. The paucity of the text reflects his penchant for privacy.
Parashat Toldot shares one episode involving Isaac which on the surface is seemingly insignificant. It describes how Isaac re-opens the wells earlier dug and initiated by his father which the Philistines had stopped and filled with dirt. (Gen. 26:15). However, the Ramban explains that with deeper probing the story of the wells reflects an added dimension to Isaac’s personality. Isaac not only re-opened the wells and restored a great good and service to society, but also restored their names according to those originally assigned them by Abraham. He safeguards the historical record. Parenthetically, the destruction of these wells has its parallel in other contemporary events whereby our enemies seek to eradicate in word and deed meaningful Jewish accomplishments. In Israel, as an example, arson to its forests in 1989 and the leveling of infrastructure in the Sinai and in Gaza respectively, when these areas were turned over to our detractors, can be seen as an effort to un-write our contributions to improving the land for all.
Through this episode with the wells, the otherwise withdrawn and nearly invisible Isaac transitions into a much more public role and in so doing preserved the legacy of his father. Isaac moves beyond his characteristic interiority to assert himself with a more public persona. He digs three new wells. The Philistines object to the first two and so he called them “Eisek”- “contention”, and “Sitnah”-“enmity.” But by the time the third well had been dug, the conflict had abated and thus he named it “Rechovot,” imparting a sense of that which is more “spacious” or “expansive.” These three wells have been seen as alluding to the three Batei Mikdash, Holy temples in Jerusalem. The first two were destroyed by our enemies who were able to capitalize on our internal strife and quarrels. But the ultimate third Beit Mikdash will be built in a spirit of harmony and will represent a new-found generosity of spirit and expansiveness of heart. By opening the wells initially excavated by his father the once intensely private Isaac has stepped out of his comfort zone and not only symbolically but in a real and material way offers hope and encouragement to his generation and beyond.
This message carries an added measure of meaning one year after Super Storm Sandy and the crisis-strewn landscape that was created in its wake. Calamity can bring out the best and also the worst in people and society. It can illustrate our capacity for kindness and generosity. There were countless stories of great caring and sharing just as there were and remain untold instances of bureaucratic logjam, ignored and unmet needs. And so it was not simply that Isaac opened up the wells and created three more but he set his sights on the plight of others. He remained ever mindful of the previous accomplishments of his father which he renewed and restored in his own time so as to plant and provide for the future. Isaac’s novelty lay in his insight and forward thinking; in his strength of character and awareness of the need to serve as a bridge between the generation that preceded and would succeed him, anchoring the achievements of the past while securing the stage for the days ahead.