Digging Wells: Parshat Toldot (by Alison Laichter)


This week’s Torah portion is Toldot. About a year ago, I was on a meditation retreat led by Rabbis Jeff Roth and Sheila Peltz Weinberg. Sheila gave an amazing drash on Toldot during the retreat, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot ever since. She related the parsha to Jewish contemplative practice, and it felt like she was speaking directly to me about why I practice Jewish meditation and not some other form of spirituality, and I wanted to share it with you.

Judaism, thankfully, has some lasting and beautiful structures: Torah, prayers, holidays, mitzvot, etc. Our task seems to be to take these structures seriously, but lightly. We have so many precedents in our history of going deep inside ourselves (see: Zohar, Hasidut), and also looking outside of ourselves and beyond our structures for insight, perspective, challenges (see: Maimonides, the entire Jewish meditation movement). So, we’re held by these structures, but for sustainability, survival, and in the spirit of learning and growing as individuals and as a people, we have to be open and find what works.

This week, we are reading Toldot. Jacob and Esau are born after fighting each other inside their mother, Rebecca, and Isaac re-digs the ancestral wells in search of water. Sheila’s interpretation of the digging of wells is what I’d like to share.

Isaac is digging the wells of Abraham, finding along the way contention, conflict, and then rehovot, spaciousness. In digging the wells, all of which lead to water, Isaac goes through a lot, eventually getting to a place of non-adversarial flowing waters… The question comes up: “why not skip all of that contention and conflict and just dig new wells?” Sheila’s answer was threefold: “1. There’s water there!, 2. We know where they are!, and 3. They are our wells!”

This is part of our spiritual path. We know there are deep insights within Jewish practice and study, we have the structures at our disposal, and maybe more importantly, it’s ours! When teaching Jewish meditation, I am always asked about what is Jewish about meditation. There are lots of ways to answer this, and I usually simply say that it’s my understanding that if I bring my whole self and my whole heart to my spiritual practice, and I’m Jewish, then my practice is Jewish.

Even when I considered myself Buddhist and wasn’t so interested in being Jewish, I said the shehechianu when I saw the Himalayas for the first time. I realized at some point, along my meditation path, that I speak Buddhist fluently, but when I practice Jewish meditation, it feels like I’m speaking my native tongue. Many people who come to the JMC talk about how they have felt an ache of connection, that they feel at home in a Jewish context, and that they’ve been looking for a way to connect their spiritual seeking and Judaism through meditation. This story of Isaac digging wells resonates with me, because often I find myself in conflict and contention with my Jewish roots and contemporary interpretations and even the idea of God, but this feels like the right path, and this is my well, and I’m thirsty.

This week’s dvar comes from Alison Laichter