Yitzchak’s Sense Of Self


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Murray Bowen, one of the pioneers in the field of family therapy, noted that families have a system of psychological interconnectedness. For example, anxiety in one family member tends to have an emotional snowball effect on the other members of the family.

For psychological health and wellness, it is important for individuals within families not to become too fused with the thoughts, emotions, and actions of other members in the family. The ideal is differentiation of the self, with each individual able to experience and balance both intimacy with, and independence from, others in the family.



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In his essay “On Clones and Identity,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed that Yitzchak was the least individuated of the patriarchs. There isn’t much we know about his life, and what we do know seems to parallel many of the events in Avraham’s life:

They both have to leave their land and travel to the land of the Pelishtim because of a famine. They both tell Avimelech that their wives are their sisters. The Torah tells us that Yitzchak even re-digs the same exact wells that Avraham dug, and gives them the same exact names that his father gave them! There seems to be a lack of differentiation of self on Yitzchak’s part.

There was apparently insufficient water in Avraham’s wells that Yitzchak re-dug, so Yitzchak moved toward individuation and initiative by digging a new well. Yet, the Torah tells us that his first attempt was fraught with difficulty. The people of Gerar claimed the water from the well belonged to them, which led to an argument. Consequently, Yitzchak named that well “Esek,” recalling the fight that transpired.

Yitzchak’s second attempt to dig a well was just as unsuccessful. It also led to controversy with the people of Gerar, so he called it “Sitnah,” recalling the hatred and enmity it engendered.

Yitzchak’s third attempt to dig a well, though, was successful and devoid of dispute. Yitzchak called this well “Rechovot,” which connotes peace, freedom, and space. Yitzchak is able to create a location for himself by differentiating from the Pelishtim as well as carving out his own personal place in his family narrative.

What is unclear, however, is why the third attempt was successful while the first two were not. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that the Torah is teaching us a lesson in grit and perseverance: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests another approach in the name of his uncle, Rabbi Joseph Baumol. If we pay careful attention, there is a fundamental textual difference between the first two diggings and the third. For the first two, the Torah highlights that it was Yitzchak’s servants who dug the wells – “Vayachperu avdei Yitzchak.” Yet, for the third well it says, “Vayachpor be’er acheret.” Yitzchak – not his servants – dug the well.

While there is a place for delegation, there are actions in life that must be performed by the individual if they are to be successful. While Avraham served as an important role model for Yitzchak, it was time for Yitzchak to begin to differentiate and forge his own path.

This journey could not be proxied out to others. It was something Yitzchak needed to experience himself. He needed to dig the new well, not his servants. Once he took responsibility and acted on his own accord, he was able to merit the “Rechovot” – the space to flourish and grow on his own.


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