We are privy to but a few of the events which made up the life of the patriarch, Yitzhak. One of these episodes involved the ongoing quarrel between Yitzhak’s servants and the shepherds of Gerar. Yitzhak’s servants would dig wells and, again and again, the shepherds of Gerar would make claim to these very same wells:
And Yitzhak’s servants dug in the wadi and they found there a well of fresh water (mayim hayim). And the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Yitzhak’s shepherds, saying, ‘The water is ours’. And he called the name of the well Esek (literally, contention), for they had contended with him. And they dug another well and they quarreled over it, too, and he called it Sitnah (literally, hostility). And him pulled up stakes from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it, and he called it Rehovot, and he said, ‘For now the Lord has given us space that we may be fruitful in the land. (Genesis 26:19-22)
On the face of it, this passage seems like little more than a description of an ancient and ongoing territorial dispute between neighboring tribes. Yitzhak gave the first two wells symbolic names which symbolized the struggles and hostility embodied by the feuds. Since there was no struggle over the third well, Yitzhak also gave it an appropriate name.
For the great medieval Spanish sage, Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, otherwise known by the acronym, Ramban (Spain 13th century), this “pshat” or simple reading was insufficient. He sought deeper meaning in this vignette, reading it allegorically as a symbolic prophecy of the future of the Jewish nation:
There is no benefit to be gained from the plain meaning of this story, nor great honor for Yitzhak that he and his father did the same thing; however, there is a hidden [significance] in this story since they come to reveal something of the future. For this reason, ‘be’ar mayim hayim’ – the spring of living waters alludes to the House of God (the Temple) which the children of Yitzhak will build… And he called the first well ‘Esek’ since it alludes to the First Temple that they (the nations) contended with us and caused among us many disputes and wars until they destroyed it. The second [well] was called Sitnah, refers to the Second Temple, a name harsher than the first. This alludes to the Second House… And during its entire existence they (the nations) were a source of enmity unto us until they destroyed it and drove us from it into bitter exile. The third well, he (Yitzhak) called Rehovot (Spacious). This is a reference to the Future House, which will be speedily built in our days, and it will be done without quarrel and feud… And concerning the Third House of the future… it is written: ‘And we shall be fruitful in the land’, (Ezekiel 41:7) signifying that all peoples will come to worship G-d with one consent. (Ramban on verses 20-21)
This interpretation is born of Ramban’s active interaction with the text. He sees this story as a projection of the future history of Israel; the digging of the first two wells represent for him visions of the destruction and despair which brought about the two-time demise of the Jewish nation and the destruction of its sacred center. These, of course, were events in the past for Ramban. Yitzhak’s third well, represents Ramban’s hope for the future – the hope that I pray that we are living!
We are living is difficult times. This vision seems distant. It is difficult for us to display Ramban’s optimism, but optimistic we must be! I hope and pray that the darkness we are experiencing today will give way to refulgent light as we enter Kislev and approach Hanukkah – the Festival of Light. May our aspirations for a future of peace and tranquility will be fulfilled.