“All’s Well that Ends Well” Parashat Toledot 5776

A seemingly laconic episode in our Parasha concerns Yitzchak and a number of wells that he dug near the Philistine City of Gerar. Here is the story in a nutshell: Yitzchak flees to Gerar because of a famine and he becomes successful and wealthy. The Philistines become jealous and they evict Yitzchak from Gerar. Then they go and plug up all of Yitzchak’s wells. Yitzchak reopens the wells and even digs three new ones. The Philistines argue about the first two wells but they finally give up after a third well is found, and Yitzchak retains uncontested ownership. End of story.

The Ramban comments that this story is tedious to the point that it “bestows no benefit or honour upon Yitzchak”. The Ramban, believing that the text cannot be explained at face value, offers an explanation based on the “Hidden Torah” (Torat Ha’Sod) and he interprets the story as metaphor for the three Batei HaMikdash. In the same vein, many of the classic Chassidic commentaries[1] also treat the story as metaphor, using it as a starting point for lengthy treatises on spiritual topics.

The Abarbanel takes an entirely different approach, stripping the story of metaphor and explaining it precisely as it is written. Moreover, he takes the Ramban to task, asserting that the story “bestows a great amount of honour on Yitzchak”. In this shiur we’re going to take a close look at the explanation of the Abarbanel and then we’re going to add a few observations of our own. In order to fully appreciate the comments of the Abarbanel, a little historical background is in order. Don[2] Yitzchak Abarbanel was a renowned Torah scholar who hailed from a wealthy family in Portugal. He succeeded his father as the Royal Treasurer. When the king died, the new king went about ridding himself of the ministers that served the previous king by beheading them. The Abarbanel got out of Portugal and fled, penniless, to Toledo in Spain. He made a name for himself as a financial genius whereupon King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had him instated as their own Royal Treasurer. When the Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492 the Abarbanel left with them, escaping to Naples[3], where the king invited him to serve as an advisor. After Naples was captured by the King of France, the Abarbanel fled to Sicily, then to Corfu, in Greece, and finally to Venice, where he served as one of the leading statesmen of the Venetian Republic until his death. One thing the Abarbanel knew was the thought process of a king. He also knew what it was to be a wealthy stranger in a strange land. His commentary is rife with examples of this knowledge. The episode of Yitzchak’s Wells is one of these episodes.

Let’s start from the top. Yitzchak is not the first forefather to live in the land in Gerar. His father, Avraham, spent some time there and he, too, became quite wealthy, much to the chagrin of the Philistines. While water is a rare and expensive commodity in the Middle East, the Philistines wanted to forget Avraham so badly that [Bereishit 26:15] “they filled his wells with dirt.” Years later when Yitzchak comes to Gerar and somehow manages to duplicate his father’s financial prowess this proves too much for the Philistines. The King of Gerar tells Yitzchak [Bereishit 26:16] “Leave us, for you are much greater than us!” The Abarbanel comments that a ruler could never throw out such an esteemed person as Yitzchak without giving him a reason. The king tells Yitzchak that “Because of your abundant crops and livestock there is no room left in Gerar for anyone else. You must move with your wealth elsewhere”. Yitzchak leaves Gerar, but he stays near town[4]. He knows exactly what the king is doing, and he has no intention of leaving his goldmine. And so Yitzchak returns fire [Bereishit 26:18]: “Yitzchak again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Avraham, and the Philistines had stopped them up after Avraham’s death; he gave them the same names that his father had given them.” Not only does Yitzchak reopen the wells that the Philistines have closed up, he calls them by the exact same names that his father had called them, as if to say “We’re not going anywhere”. Then Yitzchak goes and digs some more wells, further asserting his presence. Yitzchak must dig three wells before the Philistines get their heads around the fact that they cannot dictate their terms to Yitzchak. In celebration Yitzchak calls his third new well “Rechovot”, saying [Bereishit 26:22] “For now Hashem has made room (hir’chiv) for us, and we will be fruitful in the land. You wanted me out, but I answer to a higher source. The Ramban concludes with the words “This is the [true] explanation of the story that was written here in which the Ramban could not find benefit or honour for Yitzchak”.

The explanation of the Abarbanel offers a glimpse into political intrigue and geopolitics but it leaves one major question unanswered: If Yitzchak is not going to roll over and die, if he is prepared to fight for what is rightly his, why does he leave town? Why doesn’t he argue with the king? Only a few verses earlier the king tells his subjects [Bereishit 26:11] “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death”. Was Yitzchak scared that the king could no longer provide protection? I suggest that Yitzchak left Gerar because as a resident of town his options were limited. As a citizen of Gerar, he could not assert himself. As a citizen of Gerar he could not tell the king that “You could find no room for my possessions but the King of Kings has lots of room”. If Yitzchak wants to behave like Yitzchak, then he must do it from outside of Gerar.

Yitzchak asserts himself by digging three wells against the express wishes of the Philistines. The Philistines argue over the first two wells, claiming that the water is theirs. It’s our land, so it’s our water. Why, then, do they agree to give Yitzchak the sole possession of the third well? One might answer that Yitzchak dug his third well far enough away from Gerar so as not to arouse their anger or their jealousy. Indeed, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 26:22] “[Yitzchak] moved away from there, and he dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it”. He did not challenge their territorial rights However, I believe that the acquiescence of the Philistines was the result of something else entirely. The first well is dug by [Bereishit 26:19] “Yitzchak’s servants” and so [Bereishit 26:21] is the second well. The third well was dug by Yitzchak himself[5]. A person cannot assert himself when he uses an intermediary. If you want to impose your will on someone else, you yourself must do the imposing. Indirect negotiations will only weaken your position. But wait a minute, doesn’t the Torah say that Yitzchak “moved away” before he dug the third well? Not exactly. “Moving away” is the translation on chabad.org of the Hebrew “Vaya’tek mi’sham”. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, in his commentary on Bereishit [12:8] offers a completely different angle. He explains “vaya’tek” as “To move an object by great force, either unexpectedly, unnaturally, or illegally.” Using this interpretation, says Rav Hirsch, the word “vaya’tek” cannot be used in relation to a tent. A tent is easily picked up and moved. What did Yitzchak have to move with great force[6]? It seems clear that Yitzchak had to move the Philistines, their will, their antagonism, and their aggression. He did this by not backing down. He did this by digging yet a third well. And he did this with his own hands.

Cognizant that many of you who read this shiur live in the Diaspora, I cannot simply say “There! If you want to live like a Jew you’re going to have to live in Israel”. But I will tell you being Jewish anywhere in this world – be it Sharon, St. Kilda, or Beer Sheva – means being willing to use great force to get what is rightly yours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] See the Ma’or Va’shmesh and Kedushat Levi as loc.

[2] “Don” is an honorific title, as in “Don Corleone”.

[3] Naples was then a city-state in Italy

[4] Compare with Rashi who asserts that Yitzchak went “far away” from Gerar.

[5] Regarding the first two wells the Torah uses the word “va’yach’peru” – “they dug”. Regarding the third well we are told “va’yach’por” –“he (Yitzchak) dug”.

[6] Rav Hirsch suggests that Yitzchak had to move himself away from Gerar because the Philistines would not let him live there in peace. But what would the Abarbanel have said?

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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