Tradition of parents must be passed to children

By Rabbi Amy Feder

This week’s parasha, Toldot, is a tale of continuity and preservation focused primarily on Isaac. Despite being a Patriarch, the Torah records few great acts that define Isaac’s life and personality; rather, most of Isaac’s life happens to him. He is not, like his father Abraham, an innovative man of action, nor is he a dreamer, like Jacob and Joseph would be after him. One of the only active stories we read from Isaac’s life is the re-digging of his father’s wells.

In Toldot, Isaac finds the wells that his father Abraham had dug had since been filled up with earth, and he both re-digs the wells and renames them with the names that Abraham had once used.

Isaac’s desire to carry on the tradition of his father is striking. After all, this God who his father worshipped also told Abraham to sacrifice his son. A bit ominous for Isaac’s first encounter with Judaism! And though God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be blessed, Abraham never took the opportunity to bless his son in the words of his faith, to give him the charge to carry on what was not yet tradition.

How did Isaac know what he was meant to pass on? What sense did he have that this new faith was right for him? But Isaac lives up to this inexplicable challenge, blessing both of his sons in God’s name. With his blessing, the chain of tradition began that continues to our moment in history. By repeating his father’s one-time acts, Isaac transforms them into a model of faith that he could offer to his own descendants. In re-digging his father’s wells, Isaac inherited a blessing for himself and modeled his covenant commitment for his children.

Though passive, perhaps Isaac’s great strength was his ability to find his place and wrestle with traditions before passing them on to his children. We remember that it was Isaac’s son Jacob who, after receiving his father’s blessing, wrestled with God and became Yisrael. Maybe the ability to God-wrestle and still maintain his faith is something Jacob learned from his father Isaac. Isaac was not sure what his own father Abraham’s faith entailed, but he knew at least that there was something worth wrestling over, something worth preserving and passing on.

Isaac, in re-digging his father’s wells, both wrestled with his father’s legacy and passed it on into the future for the next generation. We can learn from Isaac, then, that we need points in our lives at which we must stop to reflect on who we are becoming and to establish constancy and continuity by focusing on the preservation of the tradition we have inherited. Isaac teaches us that our covenant with God can only be passed to the next generation when we ourselves are fully engaged in covenant — re-digging our parents’ wells, renaming them and making them our own. Only then, like Isaac, can we bless our children with wisdom and love, and send them on their way.

Rabbi Amy Feder of Temple Israel is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.