Isaac is the most misunderstood and underappreciated Patriarch. So often he is cast by commentators as feeble-minded and weak, a passive victim to his father’s zealotry, manipulated by his mother Sarah and his wife Rebecca, taken as the fool by his son Jacob, passed off as a simpleton and follower minus the revolutionary fervor of Abraham and the dream visions of Jacob.
I believe this view of him is unfortunate and wrong. Indeed, without Isaac Abraham would have passed into oblivion because Isaac re-dug his father’s wells (Genesis 26:18+), an act of profound yearning and faith. After he did so God gave this blessing: Al tira, ki it’cha Anochi u-vei-rach’ti-cha v’hir’bei-ti et zar’a-cha ba-a-vur Avraham av’di – “Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and increase your offspring for the sake of My servant Abraham.” (Genesis 26:24)
Like his father Abraham and his son Jacob, Isaac recognized the significance of his Divine-human encounter. The Midrash and mystical traditions understand his re-digging his father’s wells as Isaac’s own spiritual search for God.
The well, with its hidden waters, is a symbol of soul-light covered over by physicality (i.e. klipot), and Isaac’s “digging” and seeking that Ineffable light became the central organizing motif of his adult life and a sign of his spiritual maturity.
Though Isaac broke no new ground, by re-digging Abraham’s wells the son embodies spiritual continuity and the virtue of perseverance, each a core necessity for the perpetuation of the Jewish people and tradition.
Not all of us are revolutionaries digging new wells and forging new spiritual paths, or visionaries intuiting God’s presence and calling us to God, but our role as re-diggers of our forebears’ wells needs always to be appreciated as essential to life itself and the sustenance and future of Judaism and the Jewish people.
The following is my poetic tribute to Isaac, one of my favorite figures in all of Torah, because he was a pre-eminent “digger” of faith.
I am Isaac. / Tradition doesn’t esteem me / as my father and son. / To our people’s cynics / I’m a passive place holder, / set between two visionaries / one hearing God’s voice, / the other communing with angels.
To them I’m the do-nothing / dull-witted middle-man, / neither here nor there, / coerced into submission by a father, / tricked by a son and abandoned by God, / who willed me slain / to test my father’s faith, / and thus become / history’s most misunderstood near-victim.
My father was driven by voices, / left home on a promise / and journeyed to a Place he’d never seen, / a low-lying mountain shielded round about by a cloud / beneath heavenly fire.
My son dreamed of angels / ascending ladder rungs / from land and form / into spirit and spheres.
Tradition diminishes me / insinuating that I merely built a worldly fortune / on my father’s wealth.
Ancestors all / I’m far more than this / for you see / the wellsprings I’ve uncovered / are more than you know / greater that waters deep, calm, cool, and tranquil / their streams flow to the Source of souls.
I dug anew these, my father’s wells / the same the Philistines / with stopped-up hearts / and clogged souls / filled in when he died.
I and my servants dug and dug / our thirst unquenchable / passions unleashing / hearts expecting / souls soaring / on angels’ wings.
And after all our digging / we found the well and the spring / flowing in earthly and heavenly wetness.
The inflowing fountain never dries up. / The well is replenished / continually / and whoever drinks from its waters / merges through supernal faith.
The wells I have dug / are the same as my father’s. / That is our gift to you!
All I yearn for / is to pour the waters into your cups / that you carry on and dig anew / and pour out the same / into your own children’s cups.