Teach your children well
Many commentators note that Isaac is curiously passive when compared other biblical characters. It isn’t that he is a two-dimensional character, because we can understand important aspects of his nature from both narrative and dialogue. In the current Parsha, Toldot, just as Isaac begins to take action by moving to Egypt in order to save his family from a famine, G-d tells him to remain in Gerar. Passive. In stark contrast to the message delivered to Abraham to go forth and venture far from the land of his birth, Isaac is told to stay put, and he does. He re-enacts the covenant with G-d, and is blessed with great wealth and resources, but then what does he do?
וַיָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃
And Isaac went back and dug the water wells that they had dug in the days of his father Abraham and that the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death, and he called them by names, like the names that his father had called them.
Genesis 26:18, translation by Richard Elliot Friedman
He goes back to all the same wells that Abraham dug (later filled in by the Philistines) and opens them back up, calling them by exactly the same names his father did. Perhaps there are practical reasons for this, but it certainly seems metaphorically striking that Isaac’s later years are spent engaged in re-opening and re-naming the sources of life established by his parents before they died.
The actions and messages we receive from our parents leave indelible marks that last our whole lives. The particulars of this process can play out in any number of ways, but the result is that we spend time and energy during our adult years wrestling with the emotional legacy of our parents. Isaac’s early years included a trauma from which we can assume he never fully recovered, which is tragic, but it is a universal of human existence that sometimes children face extreme challenges early in life that will shape the direction of their development. It is a gift that the Torah includes such events, because we shouldn’t allow ourselves to pretend such things don’t exist, or that they don’t exist in our community.
Isaac’s early trauma left him with deep questions about his father that he must have wrestled with for the remainder of his life – how could he ever have forgiven him? Of course he needed to meditate in the field. Of course he would need to remain in the same lands his father traveled – his path towards his own emotional well-being required his careful retracing of his father’s steps. Perhaps he was trying, in some way, to understand his father’s choices and actions.
As parents ourselves, it is hard to come to terms with the idea that our own baggage will somehow come to rest in our children’s psyches, whether we like it or not. That’s why it is so important to communicate love. Whatever our children may face in their lives, and whatever marks our own issues and problems leave on them, if we take the time to engage lovingly, then maybe they won’t have to retrace our paths through the desert themselves. Maybe they will be able to strike out on some paths of their own, dig their own wells, and find sources of life and strength we never even dreamed of.