In preparing for this week’s dvar I listened to a podcast by Rabbi David Levin-Kruss. He speaks about the theme of ‘generations’ and names, specifically in relation to the incident where Isaac re-digs his father’s wells and gives them their old names.
R. Bachya sees this renaming as an example of Isaac following his father as a passive person, transmitting the tradition. Rabbi Levin-Kruss disagrees with this and states that we could read the passage as Isaac reconnecting to his father after the trauma of the Akedah. He is discovering what he realises he is missing, trying to bring his father back into his life. Rabbi Levin-Kruss quotes the poet Yehuda Amichai’s words about “wearing my father’s face in mine” in similarity to Rashi who quotes the Midrash saying that there was a fear that people would think Isaac was illegitimate – God made Isaac’s face the same as Abraham’s so no one could say he was not Abraham’s child. But what does it mean to walk around with your father’s face? What is the burden of having that face? Isaac eventually goes on to dig new wells but it doesn’t work. Only when he builds a well called “rehovot” (wide spaces) does he achieve his purpose.
In this way Isaac proves himself as not a passive, but an active transmitter. He finds his own way, and as Rabbi Levin-Kruss states: we all need to find our own way, separate and re-join. Mark Twain is purported to have said that a child experiences two great crises – the first is when they realise that their parents aren’t always right, and the second is when they realise that their parents aren’t always wrong. Rabbi Levin-Kruss notes, therefore, that the purpose of these naming exercises is for Isaac to realise that his father is neither always right or wrong. Isaac reaches a level of maturity when he can continue his father’s traditions whilst remaining a person in his own right. He is promised descendants not because they are good, but because this family has been given the task of redeeming the world. Rabbi Levin- Kruss finishes by interpreting this realisation of maturity as essential for Jewish continuity. To become someone who can pass down tradition and save the world, he says, we must first realise our own identity – true redemption can only come when redeemers are the fullest, best, most complete versions of ourselves that we can be.
The full podcast and source sheet can be found on the Pardes ‘Elmad’ website, dated Nov 25 2008.