Ari Sacher

“Well, Well, Well…” Parashat Toledot 5783

A famine hits the Land of Canaan and Abraham moves to Gerar to weather the storm. Gerar is the Philistine capitol, somewhere near present-day Ashqelon, owned and operated by King Abimelech. After Isaac makes a couple of good business deals, the Philistines throw him out of town, telling him [Bereishit 26:10] “Leave us, because you have become far too big for us”. Isaac leaves and begins digging wells for his flocks, wells that had been originally dug years ago by his father, Abraham, which the Philistines had filled with earth[1].

Isaac’s servants dig in the river bed and, as luck would have it, they find a spring. The herdsmen of Gerar argue with Isaac over the ownership of the well and, as a result, Isaac names the well “Esek (Contention)”. Isaac digs another well and the herdsmen of Gerar bicker over this one, as well. Isaac calls this well “Sitnah (Hatred)”. Sensing that the contention is the result of the proximity of the wells to Gerar, Isaac [Bereishit 26:22] “distances himself” from Gerar before recommencing excavation. Once again, he finds water but this time, there is no arguing. He calls the well “Rehovot (Space)”, saying [Bereishit 26:22] “Now at last G-d has granted us ample space to increase in the land.” All’s well that ends well.

The Ramban[2] asserts that the story of Isaac’s wells is not a simply a geopolitical struggle for ownership of water resources. The Ramban is a strong proponent of “Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim (The actions of the fathers serve as signposts for their children)”. According to this thesis, the stories in the Book of Bereishit have long-term ramifications in our own lives. The story of Isaac’s wells, teaches the Ramban, alludes to the three Holy Temples (Beit HaMikdash). The first well dug by Isaac alludes to the first Temple, built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians. The name “Esek” alludes to the contention of Israel’s enemies – the Assyrians and the Babylonians – who eventually burnt the Temple to the ground. Isaac’s second well alludes to the second Temple, built by Ezra and Nehemiah and destroyed by the Romans. The name “Sitnah”, a much harsher term than “Esek”, refers to the viciousness with which the Romans ransacked Jerusalem, sending the Jewish People into a two-thousand year exile from which we have not yet completely returned. Isaac’s third well alludes to the future third Temple that will be built, speedily in our days, by the Messiah. According to the Ramban, the name “Rechovot” implies that this Temple will be built “without quarrel and feud, and G-d will enlarge our borders”. The Kli Yakar[3] adds that in the Messianic era, the land will seem spacious, no matter where its borders lie, as peace will reign.

With all due respect, there seems to be a glaring flaw in the Ramban’s explanation. Notice that Philistine resistance to Isaac’s digging ends only when Isaac “distances himself” from Gerar. Had Isaac remained in close proximity to Gerar, the Philistines would have more than likely argued about the third well, as well. If we fold this back into the Ramban’s metaphor, the Torah is implying that the Messianic Era, an era in which global peace will reign and the Temple will be rebuilt, will last only as long the Jewish People remain cloistered in ghettos. If they raise their heads, if they make excessive noise, they run the risk of raising the ire of their neighbours. Is this truly the end-of-days for which we are praying?

Our perspective changes when we notice that there was a fourth well. Abimelech, King of Gerar, pays Isaac a visit and proposes that they sign a treaty of non-belligerence [Bereishit 26:28-29]: “Let us make a pact with you that you will not do us harm, just as we have not mistreated you but have always dealt kindly with you and sent you away in peace”. Isaac signs the treaty and everyone goes home happy. Immediately after Abimelech leaves, Isaac’s servants inform him that they have found water [Bereishit 26:33]: “He named [the well] Shibah (Oath), therefore the name of the city is Beer-Sheba to this day.” Beer-Sheba, a bustling city of 650,000, was named to commemorate the treaty signed between Isaac and Abimelech.

Or maybe not. Just two portions ago, the city of Beer-Sheba is named in a ceremony attended by Isaac’s father, Abraham, and Abimelech[4], who had come to sign a non-belligerence pact. The Torah explains that the city was called Beer-Sheba [Bereishit 21:31] “Because there they both swore.” Why was it necessary to give the same place the same name twice, especially considering the motivation behind the name was identical in both cases?

When Abimelech reaches out to Abraham to sign on a non-belligerence pact, Abraham reprimands him regarding wells that his slaves had stolen from Abraham. Abimelech claims that the theft, if it occurred at all, occurred without his knowledge. Abraham responds by taking sheep and cattle and giving them to Abimelech and only then does he sign the treaty. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[5] comments that Abraham’s gift of sheep and cattle was uncalled for, as he received absolutely nothing in return. But things get worse. After signing the treaty, Abraham gives Abimelech yet another gift – seven more sheep. He tells Abimelech that the seven sheep [Bereishit 21:30] “serve as proof that I dug this well”. Land for peace. Our Sages in the Midrash take Abraham to task for this unwarranted gift, asserting that because of these seven sheep, seven sanctuaries were destroyed, including the first and second Temples.

When the town is named “Beer-Sheba” the first time, it is unclear to what “Sheba” it is referring. It could have been referring to the oath (sh’vua), initiated by Abimelech, who feared the might of Abraham, and, by extension, of G-d. On the other hand, it could have been referring to the seven (sheva) sheep that Abraham gave Abimelech in an unprompted show of weakness. Did Beer-Sheba immortalize a sanctification or a desecration of G-d’s Name?

Isaac writes a very different ending to the story. Isaac always retains the upper hand. He signs a treaty with Abimelech and then immediately sends him away without any door prizes. This time, when Isaac names the city “Beer-Sheba”, there is no doubt what the “Sheba” represents: One of the region’s most powerful kings had recognized G-d’s Might. He had unilaterally approached G-d’s earthly representative and begged that he not harm his people. The sanctification of G-d’s Name was unarguable.

Isaac names the well “Rehovot” for the same reason he names the city “Beer-Sheba”. Isaac emphasizes that the herdsmen of Gerar had remained silent after he dug his well not because the well was located far away from Philistine territory but, rather, because “G-d has granted us ample space to increase in the land”. Abimelech’s newly-found respect for Isaac is indicative of his deep respect for G-d. The sanctification of G-d’s Name was unarguable.

Ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim. About ten years ago, Israel discovered large fields of natural gas off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Israel now has three twenty-first century wells extracting natural gas: Tamar (Date), Leviathan and Karish (Shark). Israel is well on her way to energy self-sufficiency. Her economic, scientific and military prowess have not gone unnoticed by her neighbours. Two years ago, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Israel ended more than seventy years of belligerence by signing the Abraham Accords. Years of conflict have come to an end not because of Israeli weakness but because of her strength. The sanctification of G-d’s Name is unarguable.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] Some suggest that the Philistines had stopped up the wells to prevent anyone from using thems as a staging ground from which to attack Gerar.

[2] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, lived in Spain and in Israel in the twelfth century.

[3] Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known as the “Kli Yakar”, served as the Rabbi of Prague in the early seventeenth century.

[4] Abimelech was a title given to the King of Gerar, similar to the titke of “Pharaoh”. The king who made a treaty with Abraham may or may not have been the same king who made a treaty with Isaac.

[5] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. 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 2000 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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