Ways we can quench our spiritual thirst from ancient wells

Genesis 25:19-28:9
Malachi 1:1-2:7

To what extent should the experience of the past inform your life or obligate you to action? This is the paramount question of the modern era. Modernity begins with a dismantling of the burdens of traditions and of the past, and focuses primarily on the possibilities of the future.

This is true of societies and cultures, and even more so of individuals, who are meant to break free of past norms and develop into truly independent, autonomous selves.

The modern project is hugely optimistic — no one is defined or held back by the past — and at the same time creates the possibility of anomie, since there are no past norms to guide us.

The ideology of modernity has so overwhelmed our culture that the question we must ask ourselves is whether the past holds any meaning or relevance for us at all? In an interesting way our parashah speaks to this question.

In Toldot, just prior to all the drama around Jacob’s stealing his elder brother’s blessing, we read a short narrative of little import on the surface. We are told that Isaac had prospered and grown so wealthy that the king of Gerar insists that he and his family leave the immediate vicinity.

Isaac does in fact leave, but then (Gen. 26:18) the Torah provides us with a remarkable scene: “Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” Isaac then sends his servants to dig new wells and, we are told, finds a spring of water.

Why, we may ask, does Isaac go to the trouble of re-digging his father’s wells? And since the Torah tells us that Isaac finds water in his new wells, are we to assume there was no water in his father’s wells?

About this sweet vignette, my own father, of blessed memory, used to teach that Isaac demonstrated a powerful and dynamic understanding of our obligation to the past. Re-digging Abraham’s wells is consummated by giving them the names his father had given them. In this Isaac demonstrates his passionate commitment to the past and the tradition of his father. At the same time, Isaac digs new wells and in them finds nourishing, living waters.

My father taught that only after showing deference and respect for the past could Isaac find new waters of sustenance. Similarly, a religious path shaped without regard for tradition and without a sense of obligation may not be able to satisfy our spiritual thirst.

On the other hand, if we have only the wells of our fathers to drink from we might find ourselves parched and thirsting for something newly refreshing. The digging of new wells must be informed by our esteem for the old wells.

A further insight is provided by Reb Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, the inspired mystic author of the Sefat Emet. He associates the word “be’er” (well) with the living waters of Torah. “Even before the Torah was received, the patriarchs ‘watered’ the world with the wisdom of Creation.”

This is how our ancestors dug new wells: They allowed the wisdom of Torah to flow from deep within themselves. We, too, might quench our spiritual thirst by cultivating the knowledge of the Divine that wells up from within our deepest soul-place, intermingling that knowledge with our traditional texts and religious teachings, and drinking deeply.

Rabbi Lavey Derby is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.