The stories of our “first family,” beginning with Abraham and Sarah and continuing throughout the Torah, are a critical piece of the master narrative of the Jewish people. The values and lessons that this family’s adventures impart as are inseparable from a modern Jew’s identity as the anecdotes that our own parents and grandparents tell from their more recent memory. The motifs of the ancient and modern Jewish story of people-building are the same… exile, wandering, internal struggles, sibling rivalries and vigilance against oppression. Seeing our distant forebears as part of our own families helps us better to understand their lives, as complex as they were, and brings their memories to life.
One such story from Parashat Toldot is Isaac’s search for a place to settle with his family. Genesis 26:18-22 reads:
18 Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham's death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.
19 But when Isaac's servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,
20 the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen, saying, "The water is ours." He named that well Esek (quarrel), because they contended with him.
21 And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah (strife).
22 He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, "Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land."
Isaac moved from place to place until he found a place to settle. On his journey he looked for areas that his father had once called home, honoring Abraham and following his lead. Like Isaac, we all look for ways to find places that nourish our bodies, minds and spirits. Sometimes we go where our parents found what they were seeking, sometimes we do not. Like Isaac, we often confront obstacles that cannot be avoided. Tackling those challenges without giving up the search is how we each find what sustains us, a place to call home, even if only temporarily.
Isaac’s quest was for water, ours is for something else. But the college experience can mirror that ancient pursuit for life-giving wells. And so much can get in the way of a college student’s pursuit of fulfillment: the anticipation and stress of choosing a school and a major, the delicate dance involved in getting to know new suite-mates, the drama of the shift from dependence to independence. At times the distractions seem too much to bear. We can take our lead from Isaac by looking for answers and comfort where others have found them. Some call it “not reinventing the wheel,” others think of it as fitting into existing frameworks. However you describe it, the search is the same.
Finding a place to call home in college means being willing to adapt, honoring what others have built for us, and working hard to dig new wells that can sustain us along our ways.
Written by David Komerofsky, executive director of Texas Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Toledot at MyJewishLearning.com.