How do we follow in our ancestors’ footsteps and still express our own individuality? This week’s Torah reading enlightens us on this question. We read about Isaac redigging the wells of his father, Abraham. These wells were stopped up after the death of Abraham and now, Isaac undertakes to reopen them.
The process is not easy, there is resistance from others living in the area and it is hard work, both physically and from the perspective of negotiation.
After many attempts, Isaac and his workers strike ‘living waters’ and gain a peaceful settlement with their neighbors. This well is given the name Rechovot, which literally means ‘spaciousness’. (Today the Weizman Institue of Science is located in Rechovot).
Psychologist Estelle Frankel, in her book, Sacred Therapy, explains that many of our Torah ancestors were sheperds and shepherdesses, who were involved in digging and maintaining wells. The well was a meeting place in ancient times, as well as a source of life.
When Torah speaks of wells it is not only referring to wells of water but metaphorically to the deep inner wellsprings of spiritual wisdom — the wisdom of the unconscious that wells up from the depth of our being.
The root of the Hebrew word for well is be’er, which also means to ‘clarify’. Thus through digging into the wisdom of our ancestors, we access our source and clarify the depths of our being. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lieb (1847–1905), Gerer Rebbe, pointed out that ‘digging the wells of our ancestors and finding life-giving water suggests that Torah, which is referred to as water, can give us our spiritual nourishment. Digging into the teachings of the generations of sages all the way back to the Torah, is a process by which we access our ‘inner point’, nekudah pnimit. This inner point being our individual well-spiring of inspiration and light that nourishes the soul.
It is through resting on the foundations of the past and exploring them, that we find our own inner point, our true individuality. The very nature of Torah study is tied into this process of renewal.
As we dig into the wellsprings of ancient wisdom, to see it through our own eyes and understand it with our own heart and mind, we have a feeling of rejuvenation.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924–2014), founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, describes the wellspring of our ancestors and the need for redigging as being similar to the skill we need for driving. As we move forward (into the future), we must also keep an eye on the rear view mirror (the past).
It is interesting that Isaac calls the well rechovot ‘expanse’, considering the action needed was to dig deep. Perhaps it is because having depth gives us the ability to expand (R. Avraham Leader, Jerusalem). The deeper the roots of a tree, the more the branches can expand.
This week we are invited to reflect on our ability to connect with the wisdom of our ancestors, in a way that can nourish the soul.