Barbara Pfeffer Billauer
integrating law, policy, religion and science

The Acts of Our Forebears Are Signs for US

Illustration of a Abrahams Well at Beersheba
Illustration of a Abrahams Well at Beersheba

Toldot: The Acts of our Ancestors Are Signs for Their Descendants

Nachmanides opines (Ramban on Bereshis 12:6.), that the acts of our ancestors are signs for their descendants. There are two possible understandings of  this maxim:

  1. The actions that our forefathers performed serve as signs for the children’s actions (I.e. – we should emulate their behavior) or
  2. Whatever events occurred to our forefathers serve as signs of future events that will happen to the children (us)

The text in Toldot provides the opportunity for both explications.

In verse 12 chapter 26, we find Isaac in Gerar, northeast of Beer Sheva, not far from modern-day Gaza, again confronting its King and his henchmen. Isaac has become exceedingly wealthy, surpassing even his prosperous father. So much so that our constant nemesis, the Philistines envy him. Among Isaac’s possessions are the wells covenanted, contracted, bought, and paid for by his father immediately prior to the Akedah in chapter 21.

And yet we find a curious sentence: One fine morning or evening, Isaac learns that all the wells his father’s servants dug years before had been stopped up by the Philistines and were full of dirt.   At least three wells Isaac’s men had to re-dig before the Philistines decided they would no longer exercise claim or dominion. Twice the Torah tells us the wells were stopped up. Rashi provides no explanation for the redundancy of the generally word-parsimonious Torah.

טו  וְכָל-הַבְּאֵרֹת, אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ עַבְדֵי אָבִיו, בִּימֵי, אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו–סִתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים, וַיְמַלְאוּם עָפָר. 15 Now all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth.
יח  וַיָּשָׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר אֶת-בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם, אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו, וַיְסַתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם; וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן, שֵׁמוֹת, כַּשֵּׁמֹת, אֲשֶׁר-קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו. 18 And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.


When precisely did the Philistines stuff the well? We don’t know –sometime after Abraham’s death, which occurred years before this incident.  Clearly, the time between wells being stopped and Isaac receiving word was far from instantaneous.

It would also be logical to assume that filling wells with dirt in the middle of the desert is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. How long did it take for three wells (or was it seven) to be stopped up? Weeks? Months? How come it took so long for Isaac to learn of the event?  How come he didn’t stop them in the middle?

One would think that a wealthy man, with herds and cattle and workers- would have had the wherewithal to assign watchmen over the wells?  One might suggest that prudence would dictate a security fence or operation would be in order.

One can only conclude Isaac was remiss in guarding his property. The Hebrew slang expression נרדם בשמירה , loosely translated as “asleep at the helm” comes to mind – the very same expression native Israelis have applied to the security debacle we are now addressing in Gaza.

Isaac’s inaction, however, is not as bizarre as it might seem. Presumably, he relied on the treaty his father forged years prior, and the clear title his father had secured to the wells back in Parshat Vayera.

The lessons we learn from Isaac’s misstep could not be more relevant:

Economic incentives will not satisfy our enemies.

Maashe Avot Siman L’Banim — The acts of the fathers are signs for their children.   

And there is more:

We will have to fight over and over and yet a third time over before they give up and go away.

Halivy we had integrated this lesson before. Let’s hope it isn’t too late.


About the Author
Grew up on Long Island, attended Cornell University (BS Hons.)and Hofstra ULaw School, MA in Occupational Health from NYU, Ph.D,. in Law and Science from Uof Haifa. Practiced trial law in New York City, Taught at NYU, University of Md Law School, Stony Brook School of Medicine. Currently Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft, Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC, Professor, International Program in Bioethics, University of Porto, Portugal. Editor Prof. Amnon Carmi's Casebook on Bioethics for Judges, Member of Advisory Board, UNESCO Committee on Bioethics. Currently residing in Netanya, Israel.
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