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Shiurim & Adult Education
THOUGHTS FOR PARASHAT TOLDOT BY ELISHEVA SHULMAN
A well to the Torah
In Parshat Toldot, several psukim are devoted to Yitzchak’s reopening and building of wells. Following a series of parallels with Avraham’s life, Yitschak reopens the wells originally dug by his father. He then digs and names three wells of his own. Amidst the famous narratives of the patriarchs’ lives, why is this well building episode assigned so much space and therefore so much importance?
A clue may lie within the Talmud’s assertion that water can represent the Torah itself (BavaKama 82a). All the waters of our planet were originally formed by a gathering or “mikvah” on the third day of creation. Viewed in this light, Yitzchak’s striving for a viable well could be seen as a reaching towards the Torah.
The kedushah of water can be seen in many of our rituals, from washing our hands, to going to the mikvah. The Jews about to stand at Sinai immersed themselves, as did those entering the Beit haMikdash. The flood was a purification for the world – forty days and forty nights correspond to the forty seah of water required to make a mikvah. According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ztl, when a person immerses themselves in the mikvah, they are placing themselves in the state of the world yet unborn, subjecting themselves totally to G-d’s creative power. In this way the self becomes nullified. The letters of the root of ביטול (nullification) are identical to those in טבילה (immersion).
However, this nullification of the self does not seem to be echoed in the narrative of Yitzchak’s well building. In fact, it seems that Yitzchak’s individuality is intrinsically important. His first two attempts are thwarted through conflict, and are thus named עשק (quarrel) and שטנה (accusation). Only the third attempt is successful. Rabbi Norman Lamm ztl suggests in the name of Rabbi Baumol that there is a fundamental difference between the first two diggings and the third. For the first two, Yitzchak’s servants dig the wells. However, the third well is dug by Yitzchak himself. While this well’s name denotes limitlessness, רחבות (expanse), Yitzchak’s seeking of the Torah and of the waters of creation is in this case intrinsically personal and Yitschak is the only one who can do it.
This leads to a paradox: the universal seems only to come through individuality. This plays out in many other ways within our spiritual lives. Many converts to Judaism speak of a deep personal journey to their universal spiritual essence as a Jew – something that is both intensely personal and also universal, with a resolution within the mikveh water during conversion. Similarly, intense personal prayer, such as hitbodedut popularised by Rebbe Nachman, can lead to an awareness of the divinity inherent in all being.
There is a Chassidic saying that each descent is for the purpose of a greater ascent. When a soul comes into the world, it descends from its purely spiritual existence. This means that the soul may rise higher through serving Hashem in the physical world. Yaakov’s well digging represented a real struggle and was very much of this world, allowing him to individuate himself while also nullifying himself by fulfilling Hashem’s purpose.
At the moment, many of us feel afflicted. According to recent studies, lockdown has had a major impact on the UK’s mental health. Loneliness is increasing and there are fewer opportunities for connection with our community. This makes it imperative that we seek to dig our own wells to connect to the Torah. This deeply personal journey, whether through online shiurim, attempting hitbodedut, or following the rituals that connect you to Yiddishkeit, is harder than ever, but perhaps the descent that we are currently living will lead to a greater ascent for each of us. Yitzchak had to build many wells before he was successful. The waters of Gan Eden still flow through the world, the Torah is eternal, and inside each of us there is the pure essence of a Jewish soul. May we all strive in our individuality to reach that which is universally within and without us, and to find an even stronger connection because of our struggles.