August 7, 2018

We must constantly dig (Toldot)

In this week’s parsha we read how Yitzchak redug the wells of water which his father, Avraham, had previously dug and that the Philistines had spitefully filled up with dirt. While we could interpret this story as merely shedding light on the history of Israelite-Philistine tensions of the past, Rabbi Steinsaltz (in ‘Talks on the Parasha’) explains that we can learn much from this event regarding how to live our lives.
Rabbi Steinsaltz begins his analysis by observing that the word used by the Torah to describe the filling up of the wells by the Philistines is ‘sitemum’ (whose root is the hebrew word ‘stam’, which literally means ordinary or insignificant). Based on this, he writes that ‘the use of the word ‘sitemum’ implies that the Philistines made the wells ordinary or insignificant (stam)…the Philistines create a reality where everything is covered, and everything is insignificant…[they] dull and deflate everything they encounter, refraining from lending any special significance to their actions.’
However, while the attitude of ‘stam’ may have been a trait of the Philistines, it pervades our society. As Rabbi Steinsaltz explains, ‘this attitude of stam – the modern Hebrew equivalent of a shrug – is extremely powerful… [and] to be a Philistine means that when someone presents a meaningful or inspiring point, the response is to immediately fill it with earth’ and to shrug it off as being of no value or significance.
As someone who is involved in a number of educational programmes and institutions, I can certainly testify to encountering the ‘stam’ phenomenon where people would rather shrug off important ideas than engage with them. However, this isn’t the Jewish way. Instead, the best response to the ‘stam’ phenomenon is to encourage the art of questioning which ‘is the best way to explore and dig into things’. As Rabbi Steinsaltz explains, ‘one must train oneself to understand that “that’s just the way it is” is only a satisfactory answer for the Philistines. A Jew is not like a Philistine; he must constantly dig wells.’
A beautiful example of this trait of questioning was expressed by Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize for physics, who was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied: “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to say, ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference. Asking good questions made me into a scientist.”
Yet, too many people erroneously think that questioning in religion points to a weakness of religion. They think that asking questions shows a lack of understanding or that asking question of faith highlights a lack of faith. However, as Rabbi Sacks once remarked, ‘in Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth.’
To encounter Judaism in a deep way, we need to dig, and in order to dig, we need to want to dig. May we continue to overcome the tendency of the ‘stam’ phenomenon through digging deep into our heritage and by finding sustenance in the waters that we uncover.

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