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Parashat Toledot: Religion by Relegation

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Religion by Relegation

In an almost casual, offhand way, our sidra tells us of a series of incidents in the life of Isaac that are apparently of no special significance, but in which our rabbis have seen the greatest importance.

Isaac lived in the land of Canaan, which suffered from scarcity of water most of the year, and he therefore decided to dig a well. We are told of three wells that he and his entourage dug. The first two involved him in difficulties with the people of Gerar, a Philistine nation. The first of these Isaac called Esek, because it was the cause of much strife and contention. He was no more successful with the second well; after his servants dug it, he incurred the hatred of the people about him. He therefore called the second well by the name Sitna, meaning enmity. It was only when the third well was dug that happiness prevailed once again; and so he called the third well Reĥovot, meaning: room, freedom, scope, peace, or joy.

Of what importance can these apparently prosaic matters be to later generations, who search in the Torah for matters of timeless significance and are not particularly interested in economic clashes and riparian rivalry in ancient Canaan? Nachmanides, following the principle of the rabbis that “ma’aseh avot siman levanim,” that the deeds of the fathers anticipate the history of the children, has taught us that the three wells of Isaac recapitulate the stories of the three great Sanctuaries of the people of Israel. The first well is a symbol of the First Temple, which was destroyed because of Esek – because of the battles and wars waged on the Jewish people by the surrounding nations. The second well, that called Sitna, represents the Second Temple, for this Temple was brought to ruins by the hatred and enmity that prevailed among the children of Israel during that period. However, the third well, Reĥovot, is the symbol of the Sanctuary that has not yet been built – that of the great future. It represents the Beit haMikdash which will one day be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and which will last forever in a spirit of Reĥovot – freedom, peace, and plenty.

However, the question remains: why indeed was Isaac successful with the third well, while failing with the first two? In what way was the third well, symbol of the Third Temple, superior to the others?

Permit me to provide an answer which has been suggested to me by my uncle, Rabbi Joseph M. Baumol, which not only answers this question but also provides us with a powerful moral for our own lives. If we analyze carefully the three verses which tell of how these three wells were dug, we will discover one significant difference between the first two and the third. The first two were dug by Isaac’s servants, his hired help. Of the first well we read: “Vayaĥperu avdei Yitzĥak,” “And the servants of Isaac dug the well.” With regard to the second well, we read: “Vayaĥperu be’er aĥeret,” “They dug another well.” In both cases, Isaac relegated his duties and activities to others. Only with regard to the third well do we find the element of personal participation: “Vayaĥpor be’er aĥeret,” “And he dug another well” (Genesis 26:19, 21, 22). As long as Isaac was going to leave the performance of his duties to others, and not do them himself, there was bound to result Esek and Sitna, hatred and argumentation. It is only when Isaac, despite the many people ready to serve him, was willing to dig the well by himself, that he was able to achieve Reĥovot – the peace and plenty and freedom that he so very much desired. The Third Temple, that which will last unto all eternity, will come about only when every Jew will take it upon himself to perform the “Vayaĥpor be’er aĥeret,” the willingness to work by himself, to commit his own energies, talents, concern, and participation to the sacred tasks which we have been assigned.

Actually, Isaac’s career from the very beginning reveals this tension between relegation and participation. Throughout his life we find signs of his struggling to learn this great principle of personal involvement. Even before he was conceived, the message came to his father Abraham that Sara would bear the child, Isaac. However, the message came not from God Himself, as it were, but through an angel. And so, when Sara heard it she laughed and ridiculed it – incurring Abraham’s annoyance and God’s irritation. Only afterwards do we read, “And the Lord said unto Abraham” – when God Himself addressed Abraham, by Himself and not through an angel, Sara began to believe in reverence and awe, and not doubt in mocking laughter, that she would be blessed with a child.

The great story of the Akeida also reveals this oscillation between relegation and participation. At first, Abraham decides to offer up Isaac himself. At the last moment, his hand is stayed and,  instead, Abraham offers up a ram caught in the thicket nearby. The Torah puts it this way (Genesis 22:13): And behold, “Ayil aĥar ne’eĥaz basvakh,” which we normally translate: “A ram was caught in the thicket behind them.” But this has also been interpreted in an equally valid fashion as: “Another ram was caught in the thicket” – that is, instead of Isaac, another sacrifice was discovered: the ram. Isaac’s life was saved and a “messenger” was offered up in his place, the ram!

His very marriage followed the same pattern. Isaac did not himself go to look for a wife; his father sent the servant Eliezer instead. According to our tradition (Tosafot on Ketubot 7b), Eliezer was legally a “shaliaĥ kiddushin,” an agent to marry a woman for Isaac by proxy. No wonder, as the Netziv has pointed out, throughout their married lives Isaac and Rebecca suffered from a sense of distance and remoteness between them, a lack of open communication and participation with each other. The Netziv sees this symbolized in the event that occurred when Isaac and Rebecca first met. There we read that at the moment she saw him, Rebecca took her veil and covered her face. This veil is a symbol of a domestic curtain, an obstruction that prevented them from communicating freely. If there is no direct personal participation, then there is a possibility of misunderstanding and even enmity.

So it was with the wells. It took two difficult diggings until Isaac learned that you ought not send someone else to do your tasks. He then learned that only if “he dug another well,” by himself and with his own effort, could he achieve Reĥovot, the peace and freedom and space that he needed for his full development.

This idea is especially important in contemporary society. As civilization grows more complex, each person grows less whole and less integrated, for he is less involved in the tasks that require his attention and devotion. With the division of labor, and the progressive concentration of expertise in narrower and narrower fields, we begin to suffer alienation, a sense of distance between ourselves and our fellow-man, a withdrawal from all of life to within ourselves. Especially in our crowded cities, this introversion and withdrawal takes place if only as a means to protect what little precious privacy we have left for ourselves.

And of course, to some extent, we must limit our involvement in society and the lives of others. We need the mechanics of the delegation of duties and tasks in order for society to function. A good administrator is one who does not do everything by himself, but sees to it that others do their parts. We cannot and should not attempt to do  everything by ourselves.

The halakha recognized this idea and incorporated it in the institution of sheliĥut, agency. We are permitted to designate an agent to perform certain tasks, not only in financial law, but even with regard to such mitzvot as the giving of charity or the writing of a sefer Torah. Nevertheless, the principle of sheliĥut is not valid for every occasion. For instance, I cannot make an agent to eat in the sukka for me, nor can I appoint someone to listen to the sound of the shofar for me. If I do, I have failed to fulfill my religious obligations. How do I distinguish between those functions for which I can appoint a messenger, and those which I must perform myself? The famous author of the Ketzot haĤoshen put it this way: I may make an agent to perform any commandment save a
mitzva shebegufo, a mitzva which I am required to perform with my own body, my own self. Thus, charity can be given by anyone – the important consideration is the result, that the poor man be fed or housed. Anyone may write a sefer Torah for me, provided that I commission it and possess it and use it. But when the commandment is that I eat in a sukka or that I hear the shofar – that is a commandment relating to my body, to my person, and no one can take my place.

Thus, certain things cannot be delegated and relegated to others. Today, as we are threatened with the progressive depersonalization of life, we must emphasize as never before the mitzva shebegufo, the significance of the individual, of selfhood, of personal participation and responsibility. We must come to recognize that we are each of us not only a collection of assignable functions, but integrated, whole, unique individuals, who must act by ourselves and as ourselves.