Parashat Tol’dot – Erev Shabbat 5 November 2021 (5782)
Week of 31 October – 6 November 2021
Torah portion: Genesis 25:19-28:9 Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7Theme: Human shortcomings and life-giving waters


Genesis 25:19 begins with the lives of Isaac and Rebekah and details Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. The conflicts between Esau and Jacob have long been a source of questions and unease for both the sages and modern readers.  Reading Rashi’s explanation and justification is interesting but does not ease my mind or change my feeling that there is injustice and moral ambiguity in the lives of both Esau and Jacob. Ellen Frankel in “The Five Books of Miriam” in her segment on Tol’dot, uses the subheading “Family Politics”, which describes a masterful presentation of the complications within this parashah. In Frankel’s book, imaginary discussions between biblical characters paint delicate patterns of varied viewpoints and perspectives that help me nod my head with a sense of understanding of the multi-faceted relationships between parents and children. However, it is beyond my capabilities to add to the many commentaries that discuss the plight of Jacob and Esau, the actions of Rebecca, and the consequences for the covenant and the generations. I will instead examine the many wells that are mentioned in Genesis 26 before the drama of Isaac blessing Jacob and Esau’s plight continue in Chapters 27 and 28.

Chapter 26:18 tells us: Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham. These very physical acts may be symbols of the struggle between Abrahamic ideas of human behavior that values righteousness and justice versus Philistine and Canaanite practices. Isaac continues to dig wells. There is the well he names Esek and the well he names Sitnah. These names are translated as struggle, contention.  The next well he names Rehoboth, meaning open spaces, which provide opportunities for peaceful living. The footnotes in “Etz Hayim” state: “There are wells of great antiquity in the area” (p.151). Isaac is engaged in a struggle for life-giving water that is necessary for survival, as well as being symbolic of the covenantal call to righteous behavior, which is a struggle in his own life and the lives of his family.

Gen. 26:24 tells of a subsequent night G-d spoke to Isaac. The Lord repeats the covenantal blessing first given to Abraham. Isaac builds an altar (verse 25), pitches his tent, and begins digging another well. Verse 32 relates the news: the servants call out: We have found water, and Isaac names the well Shibah. This seems to represent G-d’s continuing blessing. Despite the shortcomings and failures of the Avot and Imahot, the name of the well which contains the number shevah ‘7’, is the well-known symbol for completion, showing the permanence of G-d’s commitment. The covenant between G-d and humanity continues. Life-giving water will continue to flow, despite human shortcomings.

For reflection: Consider the varied ways life-giving water appears in biblical stories and reflect on how in our own lives we experience life-giving water.

Bibliography: Eskenazi, Tamara; Weiss, Andrea, The Torah, A Woman’s Commentary, (New York, 2008); Frankel, Ellen, The Five Books of Miriam. (New York, 1996); Lieber. David, Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary, (New York, 2001).

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Marjan Saenen, B.A. M.A. Education, MI USA, Bat Kol Alumna 1999, 2000, 2002, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2018


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