Among the many episodes that appear in this week’s parasha, the Torah devotes several verses to a discussion of Yitzchak’s well-digging activities after he was banished from the town of Gerar.
We learn that “Yitzchak dug anew the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Avraham” and had been subsequently stuffed up by the Philistines; we hear that Yitzchak “called them [the wells] by the same names that his father had called them”; we find out that Yitzchak’s servants dug for water in the wadi; we are told that the shepherds of Gerar contested Yitzchak’s rights to the water source that his servants discovered; we hear that Yitzchak continued his search and dug elsewhere; we find out that this next well was also challenged by the locals; finally, we learn that Yitzchak dug another well that remained uncontested.
At face value, this lengthy discussion of the various wells seems superfluous. What message does the Torah seek to relate? Of what relevance are the details of Yitzchak’s largely disputed quest for water? In the words of Ramban: "The Torah discusses the matter of the wells extensively, even though the simple straightforward story does not seem to serve a purpose".
The fact that Yitzchak is associated with the character trait of gevura, courageous strength, further exacerbates matters. A casual reading of this story does not depict Yitzchak as a beacon of strength. To the contrary. Avraham displayed his strength when he engaged in a military campaign to save Lot. Moshe waged war against the invincible kings Sichon and Og. Yehoshua was a mighty warrior who led the nation in the battles of conquest. In what sense was Yitzchak strong and mighty?
To develop an answer to these questions, it is helpful to consider a passage that appears in the Gemara: Daniel came and said: Gentiles are enslaving His children, where is His might? Therefore, Daniel did not say “mighty” [in the opening blessing of Shemoneh Esrei] although it is written there.. The Anshe Knesset Hagedola (the 'Sages of the Great Assembly' who are credited with creating the siddur) came and said: On the contrary, this is the true strength of His might, He conquers His inclination, and He exercises patience toward the wicked.
Daniel was unnerved by the atrocities that he witnessed. If God is really mighty, why would He allow His children to be enslaved and oppressed? In light of what he experienced he came to the painful conclusion that he simply could not refer to God as “mighty” anymore. The Anshe Knesset Hagedolah came along and corrected his mistake. They explained that Daniel’s existential crisis actually provided proof of God’s might.
God’s anger is flared by the mistreatment of His people, and yet, He displays tremendous might by suppressing His anger and not punishing the nations of the world immediately. He holds Himself back, so to speak, and allows things to happen that are difficult and painful. This is the greatest expression of His might in the world. This is gevura, this is strength, courage, might.
The episode of the wells demonstrates that Yitzchak possessed this same genre of strength. Yitzchak knew how to hold himself back. Even when it was difficult; even when it was painful. Even when it felt like the whole world was ungrateful and spiteful towards the enterprise of kindness and faith that his father Avraham had lovingly cultivated, Yitzchak trudged on.
He had incredible willpower. He had a job to accomplish, a world to build. He derived inspiration from his father and tenaciously continued to develop Avraham’s life’s work in a new direction that conformed to the needs of a new generation. Yitzchak was undeterred. Neither the stuffed wells, nor the jealous spirits of the Philistine shepherds stood in his way. He was his father’s ultimate student. He persevered and saw things through. He found the inner strength to continue digging even when things look bleak.
Ultimately, it was this attitude, this inner resolve and courageous persistence, that enabled Yitzchak to accomplish his life’s goals. This is gevura, this is strength.
Rabbi Yaakov Shapira is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem