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Parashat Toledot 5776 — 11/14/2015

Parashat Toledot 5776 — 11/14/2015

Note: We used to post these drashes on Wednesdays every week, and the dates up till this week have reflected that fact.  Starting this week however, the dates will be the date of the actual Shabbat on which we read the parashah.  Bob

Bereishit 25:19–28:9

And all the wells that the servants of his [Yitzchak’s] father had dug in the days of Avraham his father, the Philistines stopped them up (sitmum) and filled them with earth. [26:15]

This week, I wish I could simply copy R. Steinsaltz’ essay for you verbatim, but I don’t think that would fall within the boundaries of “fair use.”  Instead I’ll give you the executive summary and we’ll go from there.

Avraham was a ground-breaker (as well as an idol-breaker).  He introduced an entirely new idea into his world – the idea of monotheism, which had been lost shortly after Adam’s time.  He dug new wells to find living water – that is, the ocean of spiritual truth that lies beneath the superficial crust of material creation.  Yitzchak, on the other hand, was a consolidator.  His path was to take the breakthroughs his father made and strengthen them.  Surprisingly, this is a more difficult path.

The Talmud (Yoma 29a) comments that learning new material is easier than re-learning material that one has once learned.  Why is this?  Apparently there is something attractive in newness that draws our attention.  Something that we are merely repeating just doesn’t have the same charm as something new, and it can sometimes take great willpower to sit and re-master the same material.  The same is true with prayer – we say basically the same prayers three times a day, yet our challenge is to make them fresh and new each time.

Incidentally, this “division of labor” between Avraham and Yitzchak reflects a basic division in the process of creation.  Avraham represents the sefirah of Chesed – the emanation from Gd of unlimited benevolence, an unrestricted flow of creative energy.  Yitzchak represents the sefirah of Gevurah (strength) – the force that gives boundaries, and direction, to the flow of chesed.  Of course, both attributes are necessary and must be in balance for evolution to proceed.  Without a flow of creative energy of course nothing happens.  But unless that energy is channeled properly it simply floods and washes everything away, and the result is destruction, not evolution.

Now the Philistines “stopped up” the wells that Avraham dug “with earth,” and Yitzchak re-dug them and gave them the same names that his father had given them.  What is the meaning of this?  What do the Philistines represent?

A well is something that gives life-giving water.  Water is commonly used as a metaphor for Torah (in our tradition) and for pure Being in other traditions – in other words, water represents the inner, spiritual content of life.  A well is something that allows us to bring the spiritual essence out into the material world.  When Avraham dug new wells he was bringing the spiritual value of life – knowledge of Gd – to the surface.  When Yitzchak re-dug the wells, he was restoring that knowledge, which had gotten lost.  How did the knowledge get lost?  The Philistines had stopped up the wells with earth – that is, they overshadowed the spiritual aspect of life with the earthy, material aspect.

Now R. Steinsaltz points out that the word “stopped up” is sitmum, which is from the same root as the word stam.  This word means “ordinary” or “undistinguished.”  For example, d’vash devorim is bee honey, d’vash tamarim is date honey, but d’vash stam is just plain old honey.  (In Israel, “honey” refers to date honey, while in the West it generally refers to bee honey.)  R. Steinsaltz goes on to say that the use of the root stam here is indicative of an attitude that, unfortunately, is still prevalent in our day and age, as much as it was in the days of the Philistines.  This is an attitude that is incapable of penetrating the everyday, surface level of life to see the wonder, the holiness, the Divinity in everything.  R. Steinsaltz writes:

The Philistines create a reality where everything is covered, and everything is insignificant. … What reveals their fundamental character is the following: “The Philistines stopped them up.”  The Philistines consistently follow accepted norms of behavior; they are not especially righteous or wicked.  When an important question or moral dilemma arises, instead of taking one side or another, the Philistines “stop up” the entire issue at hand.  Instead of denying the existence of Gd, the Philistines avoid the question altogether. … The Philistines dull and deflate everrything they encounter, refraining from lending any special significance to their actions.

Now it should be clear that before we turn up our noses at all the “Philistines” in our midst, we’d best take a long look at ourselves and the way we perceive and evaluate the world around us.  Mostly we just see the surface values of objects.  We have often pointed out that the material level of objects is just the superficial crust on top of layers and layers of underlying structure.  This is true even if we restrict ourselves to physics – there are molecular, atomic, subatomic layers, and underlying them, all the subatomic particles are just vibrations of abstract fields.  There are also multiple layers of spiritual reality underlying every object in the universe – “Said Rabbi Shimon: ‘Every single blade of grass has a corresponding ‘mazal‘ in the sky which hits it and tells it to grow.” Bereshit Rabba 10:6.  Why don’t we see this mazal, or hear the humming of the fields?  Simply put, our eyes and ears are “stopped up with earth”!  The focus of our perception has been trained to be on the surface, “earthy” values, and the deposited stresses and strains of life have made our nervous systems too stiff to respond to finer, more delicate inputs.

We all need to combat our Philistine tendencies.  We all need to culture our bodies and our souls to see through the surface level of life, to purify ourselves so that we can perceive the infinite within every little bit of the finite.  We need to train ourselves never to be satisfied with easy, pat answers and superficial thinking.  We need to understand that nothing in the universe is just what it is.  We need to unstop the wellsprings of life that are bubbling within us, waiting to burst forth with living water to nourish every aspect of our lives.

Haftarah, Malachi 1:1 – 2:7

Know that I have sent this commandment to you so that My covenant would be with Levi, says Hashem, Master of Legions. … The teaching of truth was in his mouth and no injustice was found on his lips … For the lips of a Kohen should safeguard knowledge, and they should seek teaching from his mouth, for he is an agent of Hashem, Master of Legions. (2:4-7)

Since we are supposed to be a “kingdom of priests (Kohanim) and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), it would seem that this prophecy is addressed to all of us in the Jewish people.  We are all responsible for safeguarding the knowledge of the infinite contained in our tradition, and for giving it out so that it may be lived in the life of the nation and the world.  But to do that, we must first gain that knowledge, and this means fine-tuning our spiritual antennae so that we can perceive the spiritual reality hiding behind the surface value of objects.  Prayer, meditation, ritual, and just keeping our attention on Gd is the kind of training that focuses our attention on the ultimate reality, so that our lips may speak out truth.