Posts Tagged ‘toldot’

The Torah tells us that Yitzchak re-dug many of the same wells that his father Avraham had dug in his lifetime, an act necessitated by the fact that these earlier wells were filled in by the local inhabitants in the interim.  The Torah seems to emphasize the importance of these acts by having Yitzchak actually name the wells he re-digs.  Many commentators ask why the Torah needs to tell us this seemingly mundane fact.  Some even point out that doing so embarrasses Avraham; after all, it suggests his activities ultimately were for naught.

Traditional answers abound.  The emphasis on Yitzhak’s re-digging highlights his absolute commitment to perpetuating Avraham’s mission; the duplication of Avraham’s behavior is not a negative but the opposite – a positive sign of continuity in faith and behavior.

Another explanation suggests that ‘digging’ is a metaphor for spiritual activity – as in ‘digging’ deep into one’s soul to find out who he or she really is.  Yitzchak did not rely on Avraham’s spiritual journey to suffice for his own; he, too, needed to engage in such a process.

I’d like to offer an additional possibility based on the answer to another question about this week’s parsha.

Prior to the (in)famous incident of Eisav selling his birthright to Ya’akov, the Torah tells us that Eisav has just returned from the field and is starving from hunger.  As a result, he asks Ya’akov for the food he has just prepared, to which Ya’akov agrees so long as Eisav will sell his birthright.  Eisav’s response is fascinating.  Of course he will sell it; he’s about to die from hunger, so what good would the birthright do for him if he doesn’t make the deal – he’ll be dead anyway.

What makes this response so interesting is the fact that Eisav, if he really was about to die, ‘asked’ for the food.  Why didn’t he just take it.  He certainly was not embarrassed about stealing (and worse), so why the hesitation now, especially given the fact that he might even be justified from a halachik perspective.  After all, if someone is truly dying, pikuach nefesh (saving life) would permit him to steal food in order to live.  He certainly was strong enough to take it as well; why didn’t he?

A related question: If in fact Eisav was about to die, did Ya’akov even have the right to withhold the food since doing so might have caused his brother to die?

There is a wonderful answer provided by the Hizkuni that answers all of these questions.  But before we explore it, allow me to offer a little background.


Shawn Achor, the author of the book “The Happiness Advantage” and a professional speaker to boot once asked his audience to sing the song ‘Row Row Your Boat’ in a continuous fashion until he told them to stop (he quickly added: “And I mean to yourself, quietly” – apparently afraid of the sound produced by a roomful of tone deaf business executives singing together).  At the end of the experiment he asked everyone how long they ‘felt’ they had been singing.  The answers varied – from under a minute to as long as five minutes (when he did it in Singapore, the gap was even larger, from 20 seconds to more than eight minutes).  He then revealed that the real time was 70 seconds.

Why did everyone have such a different sense of how long it took?  Because, our author pointed out, everyone was in a different mindset despite being in the same physical space.  People who thought his presentation was going to be boring and couldn’t believe they had to sit through it often thought the experiment took much longer.  Those who were excited about it often thought it took shorter.  Same experiment; same amount of time; but due to ‘being elsewhere’ in their minds, a different sense of time followed.

Here are a couple of additional experiments that make this same point, namely that it is possible to change one’s present by ‘travelling in time’ to a different location and mindset.

The first one was conducted in 1979 with a group of men all of whom were 75 years old.  This group was taken on a weeklong retreat where they all had to ‘pretend’ to be 55.  The TV shows screened all were from 1959 (20 years earlier), as well were the magazines placed throughout the retreat center.  The men were asked to talk about their jobs when they were 55, and some even dressed how they would have dressed back then.  They talked about Eisenhower as the president.

At the end of the week the men were subjected to a battery of tests – such as vision, memory, posture and the like – all tests they had also taken prior to the retreat.  Somewhat amazingly, all the men improved dramatically … as if they had actually become younger.  Their vision improved by 10%, while their memory and posture also showed significant signs of improvement.  Strangers were shown before and after pictures of the group of men and asked to estimate their age for each individual.  On average, the strangers assumed the men after the retreat were three years younger than the men prior to the retreat.

But nothing changed physically.  They simply changed their mindset – travelled in time to 1959 and behaved as if that was their reality.  And in many ways, it did in fact become their reality.

The second experiment I want to share suggests that one can change his or her present also by travelling to the future.  In this case, experimenters told a group of highly allergic people they were rubbing poison ivy on one of their arms.  As it turned out, the bush they rubbed on their arms was a harmless shrub.  But it didn’t matter.  The subjects anticipated what they thought would happen – and it indeed did happen.  All of them began showing signs of infection, such as hives and boils.

On the other arm, then, the experimenters actually rubbed poison ivy, but this time told them that it was harmless.  Only 2 out of the 13 actually demonstrated signs of infection in this case, despite all of them actually being highly allergic.  Again, what they thought was going to happen actually influenced their present.

From these studies – and countless others – scientists conclude that it is possible to change one’s present by changing one’s mindset, that going in one’s mind to either the past or future can actually transform one’s present.  Moreover, very often when one ‘imagines’ an event in a different spatial or time zone, the brain neurons fired during that imagination are actually the exact same ones – and to the same degree – as if the person were presently experiencing what he was only imagining.


Let’s take what we’ve learned from these experiments and return to the Hizkuni.  Remember, he asked why did Eisav not simply take the food if he was going to die anyway.  His answer: Eisav wasn’t actually going to die, but was merely speaking metaphorically.  After all, he – along with Ya’akov – would have been familiar with God’s statement to Avraham, their grandfather, that they would one day inherit the land.  This statement, of course, is the content of the birthright.  Whoever possesses it possesses the land.  However, that is not the full statement made to Avraham.  God also promised him that this inheritance would not be immediate, that prior to it taking effect Avraham’s descendants would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years.

With this in mind we can now understand what Eisav actually said.  “I’m going to die, so what good is the birthright to me” really means: “I’m going to die before the birthright ever becomes relevant to my life; it’s more than 400 years off in the future, and by then I’ll be dead.  So what good is it for me if I’ll never enjoy the benefit.”  With that perspective, we now understand why he was happy to sell it, why he didn’t simply take the food, and why Ya’akov didn’t feel a need to give it to him right away; after all, he wasn’t actually dying.

From this insight we learn two important lessons.  One, of course, relates to delayed gratification.  Just because you don’t see the benefit immediately, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and not coming down the road.

Second, and how we can fortify ourselves to delay our gratification, relates to the experiments we discussed earlier.  I believe Ya’akov was a time traveler.  Yes, he knew like Eisav that he probably would never see in his lifetime the benefits of the birthright.  But that didn’t matter, because in his mind’s eye he could see how the birthright would benefit his children – his nation.  He no doubt enjoyed the same neurons firing as if he actually benefited directly himself.  He moved himself to a different time and that transformed his present and his present valuation of the birthright.


And now we can also return to the initial question about the Torah’s emphasis on the wells  Yitzchak dug.  According to the Ramban, each well represented one of the batei mikdash (Holy Temples).  Mayim Chaim, living waters, do not simply describe what can be found in a well; they also symbolize what the Temples offered to the Jewish people.  The Ramban then goes on to point out that each name given to the wells was significant.  The first one means contention, and indeed this appropriately describes what happened in the time of the First Temple.  There was contention between Am Yisrael and the nations, and the Temple was destroyed.  The second name means enmity, and here too this word describes the situation in the time of the destruction of the second Temple (in fact, this exact word is used in by Haman and others to describe their feelings towards the Jewish people, and then again in the Prophets to describe how the nations of the world felt about the Temple before its destruction).  The third name, however, is quite different – Rechovot, which means broad area, wide open, a horizon.  The Ramban writes that this describes how the 3rd Temple experience will be.  Everyone will have enough space, both physically and spiritually.  “From a narrow space I call out for God’s help, and God answers me from a broad wide open space.”  So, says the Ramban, this is what Yitzchak was thinking at the time of digging the third well.  Yes he may have been amongst strangers in a land not fully his own yet, but in his mind he was envisioning a time when Am Yisrael was safe and secure and able to fulfill its mission to influence the entire world.

And as we know, if that’s where your mind is at, so too are you.


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