Toldot: Well, Well, Well

Why tell the story of the wells?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism מאגרי מים בצפון הארץ
מאגרי מים בצפון הארץ

Dedicated to the memory of Ralph (Reuven) Hoffman z”l, fighter for Israel and a proud Jew, whose soul returned to the World of Truth a week ago, 21st Heshvan.

“Isaac dug anew the water wells which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, and which the Philistines had blocked up… And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and they found there a well of flowing water. And the shepherds of Gerar fought Isaac’s shepherds, saying: The water is ours” (Genesis 26:18-20).

We have a fundamental principle that the events which our Forefathers experienced foreshadow subsequent Jewish history: “Everything that happened to the fathers is a portent for the sons” (Ramban on Genesis 12:6, following the Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 9). Isaac decided to dig his first well in the nachal (valley, ravine), symbolizing his return to his nachala (inheritance) in Gerar, in the Gaza region – and the well that he dug was claimed by the Philistines.

The irony is glaring: Abraham, Isaac’s father, had originally dug this well, and the Philistines had blocked it. And now, when Isaac restored the well, the Philistines claimed it as their own. As recent invaders they had no claim over the land as a whole, and they certainly had no claim over the well itself: Abraham and Isaac had dug it, the Philistines had sabotaged it. Neither could they claim that the water was theirs: it was “flowing water” – by its very definition ownerless. Nonetheless, the Philistine shepherds “fought Isaac’s shepherds, saying: The water is ours”. According to the Targum Yonatan, their claim was deeper yet: “The water is ours, and has been granted us by Heaven”.

What a perfect paradigm this is of Isaac’s descendants’ return to their Land, and the response of those who claim to be the descendants of the Philistine invaders! We built the Land up, the Arabs sabotaged it – and now claim it as their inheritance!

Isaac’s second well equally caused animosity (Genesis 26:21).

But with the third well, Isaac learned the lesson of how to make peace with the Philistines: “He dug another well, and they did not fight over it. And he called it Rehovot (wide-open spaces), saying: Now HaShem has enlarged our space, and we will be fruitful in the Land” (Genesis 26:22).

If we would but spread throughout our Land, and not live in cramped cities; if we would but spread throughout the Land – not just within “little Israel”, but throughout Gerar and the rest of the Gaza region, Judea, Samaria, the Golan, Hashemite-occupied Transjordan and Syrian-occupied Bashan; if only we would be fruitful and fill the Land with Jews – that is the way to peace.

Nevertheless Isaac left Gerar (in the Gaza Strip) for Beersheba, and shortly thereafter the Philistine leader, Avimelech, came to him with Phicol, the general of his army, to request a peace treaty (Genesis 26:26-31). The Targum Yonatan explains the background: “When Isaac left Gerar the wells dried up and the trees no longer produced fruit, and they felt that all this happened to them because they had driven him out; so Avimelech went to him from Gerar and forced his allies to accompany him and Phicol the general of his army” (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 26:26).

The Midrash interprets the phrase “Avimelech came to him from Gerar” (Genesis 26:26) to mean that “Avimelech came to him wounded”, homiletically reading the word “migerar” (“from Gerar”) as “megorar” (“wounded”). “Bandits broke into his (Avimelech’s) house, assaulting him throughout the night” (Bereishit Rabbah 64:9).

How many of us remember that the Arabs used to call the sand-dunes of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip “Nachs el-Ard” (the accursed land), because no water flowed there and nothing grew in the earth – until the Jews arrived, and then the sand-dunes of that “accursed land” miraculously became lush fields producing fruits and vegetables in unprecedented abundance. And the self-same earth that eight years ago was producing fruits and vegetables of the highest quality is today barren, the trees of Gush Katif stopped producing fruit less than a month after the Jews were expelled, the fields dried up, and the only thing that has flourished there since is violence.

“Water represents nothing other than Torah” say our Sages (Bava Kama 11a, Avodah Zara 5b, Kohelet Rabbah 11:1 [1], Eliyahu Zuta 1, and countless other places), and these three wells which Isaac dug represent how Torah is brought up from the depths of the Land of Israel.

Thus the Midrash Lekach Tov analyzes: “‘Isaac dwelt, and he dug the wells of water’ (Genesis 26:18) – ‘wells’ in the plural means at least two wells; ‘And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and they found there a well of flowing water’ (verse 19); ‘And they dug another well, and they fought over that too’ (verse 21); ‘And he relocated from there and dug another well, and they did not fight over it’ (verse 22) – a total of five wells, corresponding to the Five Books of the Torah which is called a well of living waters”.

And the Midrash Rabbah details: “Five wells, corresponding to the Five Books of the Torah:

‘He named the well Esek [Contention]’ (Genesis 26:20) – corresponding to the Book of Genesis, in which G-d ‘nitasek’ [‘was involved’, the same root as ‘esek’] with creating the world.

And he named it Sitnah [“Animosity”]’ – corresponding to the Book of Exodus, following ‘They embittered their lives with hard labour’ (Exodus 1:14).

They found there a well of flowing water’ (Genesis 26:18) – corresponding to the Book of Leviticus, which is full of many halakhot.

And he called it Shivah [“Seven”]’ (verse 33) – corresponding to the Book of Numbers, which completes the seven Books of the Torah.

But are there not five Books? – Well, [Numbers comprises] three Books: from the beginning of the Book until ‘And it happened whenever the Ark would travel…’ (Numbers 10:35) is one Book; then the two verses ‘And it happened whenever the Ark would travel… And whenever it would rest he would say, Return, O HaShem, to the myriad thousands of Israel’ (verses 35-36) constitute one complete Book by themselves; and from there to the end of Numbers is one complete Book.

And he named it Rehovot [“wide open spaces”] – corresponding to the Book of Deuteronomy, following ‘When HaShem your G-d will widen your boundaries…’ (Deuteronomy 19:8), [because when he dug that well he said] ‘Now HaShem has enlarged our space, and we will be fruitful in the Land’ (Genesis 26:22)” (Bereishit Rabbah 64:8).

The Ramban has a very different perspective: he sees the first three wells as representing the three Holy Temples. He notes that the Torah relates this episode in great detail, even though “the simple meaning of the story has no benefit, neither does it add great honour to Isaac”.

He explains: “This contains a hidden allusion, coming to inform of events yet to come. The ‘well of flowing water’ [literally ‘well of living waters’] alludes to the House of G-d which Isaac’s descendants would build, which is why the Torah specifically mentions the ‘well of living waters’, as it says that ‘HaShem is the Source of living waters’ (Jeremiah 17:13).

"So he called the first well Esek [‘Contention’], alluding to the First Temple – the nations contended with us over it and had several quarrels and wars until they destroyed it.

"Then he called the second well Sitnah [‘Animosity’], a harsher name than the first, and it alludes to the Second Temple which has been referred to by this appellation, of which it is written ‘During the reign of Achashverosh [Ahasuerus], at the beginning of his reign, they [the Samaritans, enemies of the Jews] wrote words of sitnah [‘animosity’] against the inhabitants of Judea and Jerusalem’ (Ezra 4:6). And throughout its days they had sitnah [‘animosity’] against us, until they destroyed it and exiled us into evil exile.

"And he called the third well Rehovot (wide-open spaces), and this one alludes to the Holy Temple which will one day be built – speedily, in our days! – and that one will be built without fighting or conflict. Then G-d will widen our boundaries, as it says ‘When HaShem your G-d will widen your boundaries, as He swore to your Forefathers…’ (Deuteronomy 19:8), which speaks of the future time. And of the Third Temple it is written that [the chambers built into the Third Temple] ‘became wider and they wound about higher and higher’ (Ezekiel 41:7). ‘And we will be fruitful in the Land’ (Genesis 26:22), when all the nations ‘will worship Him shoulder-to-shoulder’ (Zephaniah 3:9)” (Ramban, Commentary to Genesis 26:20).

We, descendants of Isaac, have long since returned to part of our nachala (inheritance). For sure, we have – tragically and disgustingly – been denied much of our national inheritance by those who are supposed to be our national leaders, and have been expelled and kept by force from places wherein we once dwelt.

Our Forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all were similarly barred from certain parts of the Land. Yet despite all opposition they all flourished, they all lived long and good lives. Everything that happened to the fathers is a portent for the sons, and we are guaranteed that, whatever the opposition and opprobrium we face, and despite open collaboration between our ostensible national leaders and those who seek our extermination, we will yet return to the entirety of our Land, here to live in complete peace and sanctity.