Dvar Torah For Parshat Toledot 5773.
When is retreating from conflict weakness and when is it wisdom? When should one fight and when should one flee? The three stories of Isaac’s retreat from the wells that he had dug in the face of opposition from his Philistine neighbors hold more than one answer to these questions. Let’s review what we read in the Torah portion this morning. Isaac echoes his father, Abraham by claiming that Rebecca is his sister in order to avoid harassment or being killed by the locals when he journeys into the territory of Avimelekh, the Philistine king of the city of Gerar. This morally problematic tale of our ancestor forfeiting his wife’s physical and emotional integrity is nonetheless an accurate description of how nomadic heads of household may well have survived the salacious advances of the populations in which they were guests during ancient times. Likely the story is meant to describe Isaac’s actions, not praise them, as we can see from Avimelekh’s far more ethical outrage at Isaac’s deceptiveness.
The Torah then tells us that, having settled in or near Gerar, Isaac reaps one hundred times the amount of produce that he had planted, and during a famine no less. He grows so great in livestock and agriculture that he incurs the jealous wrath of the Philistines, who stop up the wells that had belonged to his father and that had become Isaac’s possession. Avimelekh warns him to leave the area because he has grown too much, thus compromising the king’s ability to protect him, according to some commentators. Twice, Isaac’s servants dig new wells, only to have their ownership belligerently contested by the local shepherds. These wells are named by him Esek and Sitnah, “Conflict” and “Hatred.” Only on the third try, after moving out of Gerar altogether, is Isaac able to dig wells without incurring hostility, so he names those wells Rehovot, “Wide Spaces.” Avimelekh and his dignitaries then visit Isaac in his new home and conclude a pact of peace with him, for they realize that God has blessed him. He is a man of power. At the very day this happens, Isaac’s servants inform him that Abraham’s wells which Isaac had attempted to re-open are full of water.
On the surface, we can read this story of Isaac’s retreat from his rightful property in two ways: either as an example of strategic retreat by a smart man who knows that he lacks the power to overcome his opponents who are stealing from him; or as an example of a cowardly man who easily relinquishes whatever is valuable to him –his wife, his property- to save his own neck. Let me suggest a more subtle, contextual reading. The Torah makes very clear that Isaac is a good guest of, and later, a treaty partner with Avimelekh. He is also blessed BY God, so that he becomes insanely wealthy and well fed in the midst of a famine. Isaac at times may be strategic and at other times he may be a coward, but this time he is a man who loves peace and courageously pursues it. He knows full well that, though it is no fault of his own, Avimelekh’s people are hungry, restive and hostile. He has nothing to prove to himself about his power, and he certainly has no reason to hurt his friend and patron the king. So, Isaac engages in a real act of courage: he backs off for the sake of not rubbing his good fortune in the faces of those who are suffering, with whom he is a neighbor. Note however that his willingness to compromise is only so elastic. God has already told him that he may not leave the land in order to sojourn in Egypt. Isaac may be ready to give his neighbors physical and emotional breathing room by contracting his own presence among them. However, he is not prepared to let them drive him out altogether. He recognizes that good fences may make good neighbors, but only when one person’s fence doesn’t become his neighbor’s graveyard.
It is not easy to be Isaac. One needs to know how to retreat for the sake of peace with others, but to do so in a way that leaves one’s integrity and security intact. This requires a careful balance of ego and self-respect with humility and greater vision: a vision of peace and community that transcends one’s immediate needs, hurt pride, or fear. It is not easy to be Isaac, whether we are talking about a family member, an employee working with others, a neighbor, a citizen, a leader in a badly divided congress, or a sovereign state of Israel that is trying to defend herself from the attacks of people whose territory she left years ago. Nonetheless, Isaac is the role model we need to emulate at every level of relationship. Thus we will truly be able to insure that all’s well that ends well.