As a Prophet, he doesn’t seem to converse with G-d much. In fact there are only two recorded dialogues between Isaac and the Almighty, both of which are actually just reassurances that G-d will protect Isaac in the same manner that He protected his father Abraham. What then do we, his descendants, learn from Isaac the second of the three Jewish Patriarchs?
I would like to suggest that it is from a seemingly mundane and unspiritual storyline in this week’s Torah portion of Toledos. In a short episode of just ten verses (26:13-22), we read of Isaac’s troubles with his wealth. Living in the deserts of southern Israel water was a valuable commodity, so Isaac re-digs the wells originally dug by his father Abraham. This simple exercise though caused him untold headaches, for the neighbouring Philistines would constantly refill them again. Determined to find water he leaves the area and digs fresh wells, but here too he is troubled, for roving shepherds claim the first two wells as their own and it is only on the third time that he finally is able to take ownership of his own water supply.
As with everything in the Bible, these are not just historical stories, but are guiding stars for the future generations.
Abraham, the first to publicly recognise G-d, the father of the Jewish Nation, had to break virgin ground. He had the difficult task of forging new paths and facing the unknown without the safety net of experience and past protocol to rely on. But with that risk of the frontier came the exhilaration of discovery. Isaac his son, may not have had the same risk but neither did he have the adrenalin rush of innovation.
Our first lesson from this episode is the difficulties one will face if we simply retrace our predecessor’s footsteps. The philistines in our lives (and we all have them) will smother our search for living waters with dull earth. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz points out that the Biblical word used for their treachery is a derivative of stam, whose equivalent in modern Hebrew is a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. The easiest way to quench someone else’s fire is to dismiss it out of hand, and if we are already lacking the cliff-edge excitement of being the innovator then what hope do we have? Isaac tries this a few times, but with the constant disdain of the Philistines blocking his quest for water he realises he has to move on and break new ground. He is not looking for something new, the traditions of his father and the lessons taught by him are still his goal, Isaac just needs to discover his own path to appreciate the truths and discoveries of his father.
Yet here too, Isaac faces difficulties and the Bible once again teaches us a valuable lesson.
For even when we realise that we need to find our own individual path on our ancestors’ map, there is no guarantee. There will always be the roving shepherd who claims that your discovery is in fact theirs. You have done nothing new and cannot take ownership of your newfound well of fresh water. Isaac tries not once, not twice, but three times. The 13thcentury Spanish Rabbi, Nachmanides explains that Isaac’s three attempts refer to the Three Temples of Jerusalem. The first two were new and innovative breaking new ground, first by King David and then by the returnees of the Babylonian Exile, but they were ultimately destroyed (first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then the Romans in 70 CE). Our job though is to continue searching, to persevere and dig again for the life-giving waters of our Religion. To discover our generation’s frontier within the path first walked by our ancestors.
This comes with the promise of that third well dug by Isaac. The end of his long and arduous journey was rewarded by an uncontested and ever-flowing well of fresh water. For us that is the promise of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. A promise of peace for all mankind, with no dismissive shrugs of a philistine nor the quarrels of ownership.
Theodore Roosevelt probably summed this all up best: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”