November 19, 2020  |  Vol. 25

   Toldot: The Need to Dig Wells

Toldot, this week’s portion, focuses on the family life of Isaac, the son of Abraham. In this portion, we see how Isaac and his wife Rebecca interact with their two sons, Jacob and Esav. We already know that of the twin brothers, Jacob is the positive and righteous son, whereas Esav embodies the negative. Despite this, Esav remains the favored son of his father. For this reason, Isaac decides to give Esav God’s most powerful blessing. With this blessing, Isaac hopes to restore order to the world. However, his plan is thwarted, and we should be glad that it is.

Who thwarts the plan of Isaac? None other than his own wife, Rebecca. She tells her son Jacob to trick his father, to dress up as Esav and receive a blessing that isn’t intended for him. Naturally, Jacob is unsure about defying his father. However, Rebecca says that any resultant curse would be on her. In understanding this story, it’s helpful to remember that Rebecca is a reincarnation of Eve. She is referencing the moment where Eve fell into the snake’s temptation. In this iteration of events, however, Rebecca becomes the snake, tricking Isaac into eating Jacob’s food and so giving him his blessing. The difference is that she is acting for good, preventing evil forces from receiving that which would only cause further chaos. Though her action, she restores balance and rectifies the original sin.

This is not the only incident involving food that we see in the portion. We also see Jacob make a deal with Esav, who comes to him as he eats lentils and begs to share some of his food. Jacob does not simply give the food willingly, as we may expect of a righteous person. Instead, he only agrees to share his meal in a trade, in exchange for his slightly older brother’s birthright.This epEsavde has caused spiritual students a great deal of confusion. Many questions arise as we analyze it: Is Jacob taking advantage of a desperate man? Is he exploiting a vulnerability in his brother? How, then, can he be righteous himself? It doesn’t make sense! Or at least, it doesn’t seem to. Even knowing that Jacob is good and Esav is not, it’s very hard to excuse Jacob’s behavior at this moment. Believe it or not, this confusion that we suffer is a lesson in itself.

If we know that someone is good and another is bad, we must approach situations with that knowledge in mind. It’s not right that we read this story and begin to side with Esav. Instead, we must assume that we do not understand the situation or know all the facts if they lead us to a negative conclusion. Indeed, this is the case here. What we fail to take into consideration on our first reading is the fact that Esav didn’t want his birthright. He had pleaded with Jacob in the past to take it from him. By making this deal, Jacob made it easier for Esav to receive what he needed. However, if we give up on the goodness of Jacob on our first encounter with this story, then we totally miss the true intention behind his actions. Our perspective becomes clouded by our tendency toward judgement.

How often have you made a snap judgement based on a situation you barely understood? Have you ever found yourself momentarily on the side of evil? This is a very dangerous position to occupy, and yet we often end up there! This is why, when someone good does something that confuses us, that makes us doubt them, then we must place our faith in their intentions. Otherwise, we risk over-identifying with the negative. You can’t make sense of negativity, and if you’re able to do this then you’re certainly doing something wrong. Rather than attempt to rationalize and defend the negative, we should accept that there are things we do not understand in this world. To know everything for sure is to limit ourselves a great deal. However, not knowing liberates every possibility. It is a better stance for life.

To know what is good and what is bad, spirituality is required. In this portion, we see Isaac spending a long time digging five wells. This is a metaphor for our own spiritual connection to G-d, which is in turn represented by the water. This connection is within us -- it does not need to be transplanted -- but to access it we must do the work. We must dig. What dirt covers our connection to G-d? What obstacles lie between us? Every time we allow the negative side of ourselves (the Esav) to win, then we pile more dirt between us and the Divine. The physical world acts as a thick cover between us and this connection. To make contact with it, there is labor involved. This labor is our spiritual practice.

Did you notice in this portion that miracles became mundane? That happened for a moment when the handmaiden saw angels before her, yet she did not feel any awe. This is surprising to us, as we assume that the Divine will always inspire an appropriately amazed reaction. How can this be treated as ordinary? We may judge the handmaiden for her ingratitude. Yet we emulate her every day of our lives. We take for granted the miracles that permit us to wake up, to breathe and eat, to love and learn, to grow and change. The fact is that when incredible things become a habit, we stop appreciating them as incredible. 

For this reason, part of the digging that we must do requires practising conscious and intentional gratitude. The other part involves accepting the unknown while always favoring the good. This is how we live the lessons of this portion, the portion of Toldot.

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