Saturday, October 26, 2013

Wells of Wisdom / Toldot

Frank Zappa once said: Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.” I’m not so sure about the implied hierarchy here but I am certain that information, and even knowledge, are not wisdom. My mind reels when I consider how many sources and outlets there are for information, many at my fingertips thanks to a computer. But again, information and knowledge are not the same as wisdom. And alas! We cannot google wisdom and it is wisdom to need to live meaningful and purposeful lives.

Marcel Proust wrote, “We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us. (In Search of Lost Time Vol. II: Within a Budding Grove, 1919)

Isaac’s life exemplifies this principle. Isaac, who once lay beneath the blade of a knife, has a perspective and experiences most of us lack. He lives a quieter, less dramatic life than either his father or son, but within the quieter parameters, we find he is every bit as active in his search for divine wisdom.

In this week’s parashah, Toldot, there is much talk of wells. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise given the arid desert in which the narratives take place. Proust’s wilderness? Water that comes from the arid earth is like wisdom, so difficult to acquire; and digging wells reminds us that the search for wisdom—genuine wisdom— is arduous. But it’s worth the effort because wisdom, like water, is life sustaining.

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847–1905) comments:

Regarding the wells the patriarchs dug: the word be’er (well) should be read in the context of, “Moses agreed to explain/clarify (bei’eir) this teaching” (Deuteronomy 1:5). In the same way, even before the Torah was received [at Mt. Sinai], the patriarchs explained/”welled” the wisdom of Creation, since everything was created through Torah and for God’s glory. We have to contemplate all of Creation in order to understand the Creator’s purpose. Abraham our Father explained/”welled” how to derive the love of God from all of Creation.

This passage is easier to understand in the original Hebrew than it is in translation. I hope I can succeed in explaining what the Sfat Emet is teaching us. He connects the word “well” (b’eir) in our parashah with the use of bei’eir, written precisely the same way in un-pointed Hebrew, which means to explicate, elucidate, clarify, or explain. The Sfat Emet thereby imagines the word “well” to be a verb, explaining that what Moses is doing when he teaches Torah to the Israelites is “welling.” Hence Isaac, in his flurry of well-digging, is explaining Torah, as Moses did. But Isaac lived long before matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai), so we might well ask: How could Isaac teach a Torah that hasn’t been given yet? The Sfat Emet offers us a beautiful response to this question: Torah existed before Creation; the Rabbis tell us (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1) it was the blueprint with which God fashioned the world.

The Sfat Emet’s comment is a prescient reminder about torah (I write torah with a lower-case “t” to connote divine wisdom, which is not necessary explicitly articulated in the Five Books of Moses). There is torah all about us: divine wisdom we learn from the world and from within. S’fat Emet reminds us that [capital “T”] Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and many would include the Talmud, or [lower case “t”] torah, divine wisdom from many sources, is available to us if we but dig for it.

We can see the many wells recounted in Parshat Toldot as signposts reminding us of seven sources of divine wisdom.

First, Isaac digs anew the wells of his father Abraham:

So Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar where he settled. Isaac dug anew the wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and that the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names that his father had given them. (Genesis 26:17-18)

Isaac re-dug the wells of his father Abraham. The generations before, and the sacred books and traditions they bequeathed us, have both Torah and torah to teach us.

The second, third, and fourth sources of wisdom we learn from the well of fresh spring water that Isaac’s servants find. (Genesis 26:19-21) As water is the metaphor for Torah—mayim chaim/life-giving waters, the well of fresh spring water reminds us that torah wisdom comes, as well, from new interpretations. The herdsmen of Gerar claim that the spring is theirs, as if to say, “This water, this wisdom, is ours.” The third source of wisdom is other traditions and cultures that possess valuable wisdom. Isaac drank their water.  Fourth is the wisdom gleaned from pain and suffering. The wells of Esek and Sitnah reflect the contention and struggles between Isaac and the herdsmen of Gerar. I’ve yet to speak with someone who has gone through a crisis, or experienced trauma, or survived a dangerous situation who has not gleaned wisdom from their experience.

Next Isaac moves on and digs a well he names Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land” (Genesis 26:22). Rehoboth means, “wide, open space.” So, too, the world itself is the fifth source of divine wisdom, and it is ours if we dig within and open ourselves to make space to receive it.

Sixth, Torah tells us:

From there [Isaac] went up to Beer-sheba. That night the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham.’ So [Isaac] built an altar there and invoked the Lord by name. Isaac pitched his tent there and his servants started digging a well. (Genesis 26:23-25)

A sixth source of wisdom comes to us from our relationship with the One, God who is ultimate, accessible, a well of compassion, justice, love, and wisdom that never dries up—whether we encounter God as being beyond us or within us.

Avimelekh arrives in Beersheba to make a peace treaty with Isaac. The following day Isaac digs two more wells.

Early in the morning, [Isaac and Avimelekh) exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace. That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and he said to him, “we have found water!” He named it Shiv’ah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheva to this day.[1] (Genesis 26:31-33)

The seventh source of divine wisdom emanates from living in the community of others, both those like us and those different from us. Isaac digs a well in Beersheba, where his parents had lived and where his descendants would live, but also a place where many other peoples would live. Isaac breaks ground for a new community to blossom and thrive. (Genesis 26:32-33)

From how many of these seven sources have you drawn wisdom? Is there one or more that have not been on your screen but perhaps have something to offer you?

Isaac works hard to find wisdom, and even harder to employ it in his life. He is not always successful any more than we are. He lives by the adage:

Don’t wish life were easier; wish you were better.
Don’t wish for fewer challenges; wish for more wisdom.

I imagine that Isaac’s daily prayer might be, “God, grant me strength to wrest wisdom from every corner of life in this universe, and the ability to use that wisdom in all that I do each day!”

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] This passage depends upon a pun in the Hebrew: Beersheba’s name is derived from a pun. The “Seven Wells” (sheva = seven) are also the “Well of Oath” (sh’vu-ah = oath).

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