Parashat Toldot - Yitzchak's Wells
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כח חשון התשעח | 17.11.2017
אדר א' תשע"ד
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
הרב שבתי סבתו
Naming the Wells
וַיָּשָׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר אֶת בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו... וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת...
Yitzchak again dug the wells of water that were dug
in the days of his father Avraham… and he gave them names. (B'reshit 26,18)
The story of Yitzchak's wells occupies a prominent place in the weekly portion of Toldot. The neighboring Plishtim stop them up and banish Yitzchak from the area, but the fight over these fresh-water sources continues even when he moves to Gerar. It ends only when King Avimelekh finally recognizes Yitzchak's G-dliness and forges with him a "peace treaty." Some of the wells had originally been dug by Yitzchak's father Avraham; not only did Yitzchak re-dig them, but he also gave them the same names his father had given them.
The Torah is not a history book, but is rather one of prophecy, and we must therefore ask what message the Torah wishes to give over regarding these wells in Yitzchak's life. In addition, what is the significance of the names Yitzchak gave the wells, and why was it important for him to restore the original names given by Avraham?
The quarrel between the Plishti shepherds of Gerar and Yitzchak's shepherds regarding the ownership of the wells was most certainly quite intense. But it seems that what the Plishtim did went beyond a mere monetary dispute:
וְכָל הַבְּאֵרֹת אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ עַבְדֵי אָבִיו בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו סִתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים וַיְמַלְאוּם עָפָר
All the wells his father's servants dug during his father Avraham's days,
the Plishtim stopped them up and filled them with dirt. (verse 15)
Why did they have to block up the wells? Wouldn't they want to draw water for themselves after Avraham's death? These were clearly acts of extreme hatred. What is the source of such enmity? Was it jealousy of Yitzchak, or was it something more? We find the answer in the above-quoted verse 18, which tells us that Yitzchak "gave names [to the wells], like the names his father called them." It was the names of the wells that the shepherds of Gerar couldn't bear! The names were all connected to the Name of G-d, and the wells thus represented G-d – a great threat to everything these idol-worshipers believed in!
The prototype for giving names of this type was the tree in Be'er Sheva: "Avraham planted a tree in Be'er Sheva, and called there in G-d's name, Master of the world." (21,33) The pagan Plishtim sought to erase these names. Any means to this end were justified – even filling the wells with dirt and thus giving up fresh water sources. They could not tolerate having names associated with Hashem proudly borne atop their wells. And this is precisely why Yitzchak made sure to give these same names again, the ones his father Avraham gave, when he re-dug the wells.
True, it appears that the fight was simply over the ownership of the wells, as verse 20 states: The shepherds of Gerar fought with the shepherds of Yitzchak, saying, "The water is ours." But in truth, deep in their consciousness, the Plishtim actually bore a tremendous hatred against everything these wells represented, as manifest by the Name of G-d waving atop them.
The Fourth Well
By the time Yitzchak digs his fourth well, however, a total turnabout has occurred. The Plishtim's King Avimelekh, together with his chief of staff Pichol, come to see Yitzchak, and declare openly that Hashem is G-d:
רָאוֹ רָאִינוּ כִּי הָיָה ה' עִמָּךְ ... וְנִכְרְתָה בְרִית עִמָּךְ
We have seen clearly that Hashem is with you, and we said:
"…we will forge a covenant with you." (verse 21)
This declaration is a great Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d's Name, before the peoples of the area, and is in fact the climax that Yitzchak was seeking for his actions. This great achievement of Yitzchak is similar to the one that Avraham's servant Eliezer scored when seeking a wife for Yitzchak. By telling over the story, with such enthusiasm and sincerity, of how G-d had answered his prayer for a girl who would fetch water for his camels, Eliezer was able to get even idol-worshiping Lavan and Betuel to acknowledge G-d's presence – and they said, "This matter has emanated from G-d! … Let [Rivka] be a wife for your master's son, as G-d has spoken." (24,50-51)
In truth, the Plishtim thinking began to change when they saw Yitzchak's third well, over which they did not fight. They noted that every well Yitzchak dug produced fresh water, and were impressed by the way he showed thanks and appreciation to
G-d. He called this third well "Rehovot," from the word meaning "expanse":
כִּי עַתָּה הִרְחִיב ה' לָנוּ וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ
For G-d has granted us expanse, and we can multiply in the land. (26,22)
This led Hashem to reveal Himself to Yitzchak that very night, when He said: "I am the G-d of your father Avraham, do not fear, for I am with you, and I will bless you…" (verse 24). This Divine revelation signals the Kiddush Hashem that is about to happen. Note the reaction of Avimelekh and Pichol over well number four:
רָאוֹ רָאִינוּ כִּי הָיָה ה' עִמָּךְ
We have clearly seen that G-d is with you… (verse 28)
By using the word ראה, "seeing," in a double form, they are saying "it has become revealed to us." They are acknowledging that Hashem revealed Himself via the wells of fresh water dug by Yitzchak.
Revelation on the Water
Interestingly, this Divine revelation on the water did not start now. Long before this, before Yitzchak and Yishmael were born, an angel of G-d appeared to Hagar, the banished maidservant of the Matriarch Sarah, at a water spring:
וַיִּמְצָאָהּ מַלְאַךְ ה' עַל עֵין הַמַּיִם בַּמִּדְבָּר עַל הָעַיִן בְּדֶרֶךְ שׁוּר
An angel of G-d found her by the spring of water in the desert,
by the spring on the road to Shur. (16,7)
We see later (verse 14) that that well was given a name: Be'er Lachai Ro'i ("a well upon which the living appeared"; this will be explained below). Yitzchak Avinu had felt, ever since his early childhood, that his unique share in sanctifying G-d's Name before the nations of the world would be connected with fresh water and wells. This is why Yitzchak felt extra close to this particular well. For instance, when the servant Eliezer brings Rivka to the Land of Israel for the first time, where do they meet Yitzchak? At this very well, as written: "Yitzchak was coming from Be'er Lachai Ro'i, and he was living in the Negev." (24,62) What was he doing there? The Torah does not tell us. We see only that he is making his way from the well to the field – where, actually, the Torah does tell us what he was doing:
וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים
Yitzchak was going out to talk (lasuach) in the field before evening,
and he lifted his eyes and saw camels coming. (verse 63)
The word lasuach, comes from the root meaning "to converse." With whom was Yitzchak talking in the field? Was he not alone there? Our Sages in the Gmara found the answer in the Book of Psalms:
תְּפִלָּה לְעָנִי כִי יַעֲטֹף וְלִפְנֵי ה' יִשְׁפּךְ שִׂיחוֹ
A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself
and pours out his speech before G-d. (Psalms 102,1)
The Gmara thereupon concludes: Sicha means prayer (Brachot 26b), and therefore Yitzchak was talking in silent prayer with G-d! We also note that the image depicted in this verse of Psalms is that of a suffering man enwrapped in his sadness and mourning, pouring his heart out before Hashem. The Sages explain that this sicha of Yitzchak was the original Mincha prayer that we recite every afternoon before sundown. This is the prayer in which we set before G-d all the tribulations and events we have experienced during the day, and ask Him for His guidance and blessing.
This style of prayer, befitting a poor man at the door asking for charity, is unique to Yitzchak among the three Patriarchs. Avraham's prayer, for instance, is more ethically demanding and more insistent on justice. As we saw in Parashat Vayera, when Avraham prayed for the people of S'dom, he asked G-d:
הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה צַדִּיק עִם רָשָׁע? ...חָלִלָה לָּךְ, הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט?
Will You actually wipe out the righteous together with the wicked? ...It would be sacrilegious of You; will the judge of the entire earth not do justice Himself? (18,23-25)
Yitzchak's prayer style, on the other hand, is very appropriate to the prayer offered up at Be'er LaChai Ro'i, as we see in the case of Hagar. She had made her way to the well; Hashem saw her suffering and heard her tortured prayers, and sent her an angel. The angel tells her to return to her mistress, and also gives her some good news: "Behold, you are pregnant and will give birth to a son; you shall call him Yishmael, for Hashem has heard (shama) your suffering." (16,11)
Hagar responds in amazement: "Have I seen Him even here, after having seen Him?" (verse 13) What she means is this: "I know that I used to see heavenly angels in Avraham's house, but can it really be that I continue to see them even here and now? The King of Kings does not abandon me even when I am poor and broken? Does G-d truly relate to even the most downtrodden of human society? Can it really be so?"
This is precisely the style of Yitzchak's prayer: the "heart-pouring before G-d" by a "poor man!" In this vein, Hagar relates to the G-dly angel, giving him a name: אַתָּה
אֵ-ל רֳאִי, 'You are G-d Who sees me' (verse 13), meaning, "You are the G-d of seeing; You see, and You are seen and revealed" – even to one such as me.
It is true, however, that the story appears to revolve around "hearing," with the angel instructing her to name her son Yishmael, G-d will hear, as he himself explained: "for Hashem has heard your suffering." Nevertheless, Hagar was impressed specifically by the fact that Hashem had been revealed to her via an angel that can be seen. This is why she named the angel 'You are G-d Who sees me.' She is saying: "Not only has Hashem heard my prayer and my suffering, but He also sent an angel to reveal himself to me."
This Divine revelation to mortals is the rationale behind the name of the well: Be'er LaChai Ro'i – meaning, the well "for the living G-d Who reveals Himself via an angel" to Hagar. The name does not mean to imply that the angel saw Hagar, but rather that Hagar saw the angel.
This well, then - Be'er Lachai Ro'i - marks the beginning of a long journey, the climax of which is the last of the four wells dug by Yitzchak, in Be'er Sheva. The journey begins at the well where there was a great Kiddush Hashem, manifest through water, before one lowly maidservant. It ends in Be'er Sheva, where there is to be an even greater Kiddush Hashem, to be revealed to masses of people of the Plishtim, who say, "We have clearly seen – all of us – that G-d is with you…" (verse 28)
We have seen that Yitzchak adopted a style of prayer befitting a poor man pouring out his heart to Hashem. He would do this every day at the same time: the time of Mincha, just before sunset. Avraham's servant Eliezer, in Aram Naharayim on his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, also prayed at this time of day:
וַיַּבְרֵךְ הַגְּמַלִּים מִחוּץ לָעִיר אֶל בְּאֵר הַמָּיִם לְעֵת עֶרֶב לְעֵת צֵאת הַשֹּׁאֲבֹת
He had the camels kneel outside the city at the well, towards evening time… (24,11)
Eliezer chooses this time to offer prayer to Hashem, and it converges with Yitzchak's prayer at the very same hour. Yitzchak's merit, in fact, comes to Eliezer's aid, and the angel sends him Rivka "even before he finished speaking" (verse 15).
Why is it that Yitzchak chose this style of prayer, that of the "poor man" described in the above-quoted verse from Psalms? Was there a formative event in his life that had a decisive influence on the way he prayed?
The answer would certainly seem to be those few minutes that he spent atop the altar, bound and tied, waiting to be slaughtered by his father at G-d's command. These were most likely the profound moments that affected him most greatly and remained before his eyes throughout his life. No one can be more impoverished and totally dependent on the Master of the Universe than one who is a helpless victim, as Yitzchak was on the altar. This is why his prayer forever after was of the pleading of a "poor man."
The Divine Response
Let us compare the prayers of the three Patriarchs, and we will see that Avraham and Yaakov, unlike Yitzchak, received the Divine blessing of many descendants at the beginning of their spiritual journeys. Hashem made this promise to Avraham when he first arrived in Eretz Yisrael, and to Yaakov when he left his parents' home and set out for Haran. The blessing they received was given them before their children were born.
Yitzchak, on the other hand, was already father to Yaakov and Esav when Hashem appeared to him and blessed him: "I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens…" (26,4). Why did Hashem not give him this blessing before his sons were born, during the twenty years in which he and Rivka were childless?
It can only be that He wanted Yitzchak to understand that for him, everything is dependent on prayer. This is not so for Avraham and Yaakov; the Torah does not tell us that they prayed for children, but only that they believed in Hashem's promise to them. But with Yitzchak, the link between prayer and the desired outcome is very pronounced:
וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה' לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה' וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ
Yitzchak prayed to G-d, alongside his wife, for she was barren,
and Hashem hearkened to him, and Rivka his wife became pregnant. (25,21)
Hashem responded to Yitzchak's prayer immediately! It is also noteworthy that the Torah uses the same word, with different vowels – וַיֶּעְתַּר and וַיֵּעָתֶר, he prayed and He hearkened – to express both the prayer and G-d's response to it.
This story is the source of our Sages' teaching that the Matriarchs were childless at first precisely so that they should pray; Hashem "hungers" for the prayers of the righteous. G-d wants a partnership with the righteous in His creation – and the way they do their share is via prayer.
Another difference between Yitzchak and the other Patriarchs is this: Everywhere they received a Divine revelation, they immediately built an altar to G-d. But Yitzchak, who himself was tied atop an altar, went further and also dug a well there:
וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה' בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא... וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם ה'
וַיֶּט שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּכְרוּ שָׁם עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק בְּאֵר
G-d appeared to him [Yitzchak] that night… and he built an altar there and proclaimed G-d's Name and pitched his tent, and Yitzchak's servants dug a well there. (26,25)
The well emphasizes the vitality of fresh water, in contrast with the fire of an altar. Both the well and the altar filled the function of a center for worship of G-d where the call for faith in Him was sounded.
Let us recall that Avraham made a covenant with King Avimelekh at a well that he named Be'er Sheva. "Sheva" is the number seven, and Avraham in fact placed seven sheep there – but he did not explain why. If we track the wells that his son Yitzchak later dug, we will uncover the explanation.
The first well (B'reshit 26,19) was one that had earlier been dug by Avraham and was violently claimed by the Plishtim. Yitzchak added the name Esek, signifying the fight.
The second well, too (verse 21), was one that had originally been dug in the times of his father and was blocked up by the Plishtim. Once again the Plishtim put up a fight, expressing great hatred as well. Yitzchak named it Sitna, hatred.
Yitzchak's third well (verse 22) was a new one, never previously dug or stopped up. This is why the Plishtim did not fight over it, and Yitzchak named it Rehovot, indicating the abundance with which Hashem was now blessing him. Thus far there were three wells, but for two of them it was the second time, bringing the total to five.
Armed with the blessing of this last well, Yitzchak made his way to Be'er Sheva, where G-d appeared to him, and he both built an altar and dug a well – one that had previously been dug by Avraham, but was then stolen by the Plishtim. Avraham rebuked the previous King Avimelekh for this (21,25), and the king returned it to him, together with an oath to keep the peace between them:
עַל כֵּן קָרָא לַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בְּאֵר שָׁבַע, כִּי שָׁם נִשְׁבְּעוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם.
He therefore called that place Be'er Sheva, for there the two of them swore (nishb'u).
The Torah tells us that Avraham placed there seven sheep and declared that they would symbolize his ownership of the well, as he told Avimelekh: "Take these seven sheep from me, as my testament that I dug this well." (verse 30)
In the end, the name Be'er Sheva did not last, because the Plishtim stopped up the well after Avraham died. But now, years later, Yitzchak comes and digs it up once again, with the help of a Divine blessing and promise. Avimelekh and Pichol arrive, recount how they have seen G-d's revelation and His blessing to Yitzchak, and request a renewed "peace treaty." That very day, Yitzchak's servants inform him that water has been found in this old-new well. Yitzchak then calls it by its original name given by Avraham, Be'er Sheva:
וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָהּ שִׁבְעָה. עַל כֵּן שֵׁם הָעִיר בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
He called it Shiva. For this, the city's name is Be'er Sheva up until this day. (verse 33)
Add this twice-dug well to the five we counted before, and the total is seven: three that were dug twice each, and one – Rehovot, the third well – that was dug only once.
The name of the city, Be'er Sheva, has thus been given new meaning. Until now, the word sheva was derived from the word sh'vuah, the oath with which Avraham and Avimelekh forged their covenant. Now, however, it is connected with the number sheva, seven, symbolizing the number of wells.
The three wells that were dug twice, plus the seventh one, depict a picture of the Sabbath day standing like the middle lamp of the Holy Temple's Menorah: Three lamps on the right and three on the left are like Wednesday-Thursday-Friday flanking the Sabbath on one side, and Sunday-Monday-Tuesday flanking it on the other. (The Gmara in Tr. Gittin, p. 87a, teaches that the first three days of the week belong to the Sabbath before them, and the last three belong to the Sabbath after them.)
Yitzchak Avinu, with his pleading prayers and the gushing of his wells, succeeds in bringing the idol-worshipers of his day to recognize the Supreme G-d. His success began with the Be'er Lachai Ro'i well, as written:
וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק עִם בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי
After Avraham's death, G-d blessed his son Yitzchak,
and Yitzchak dwelled with Be'er Lachai Ro'i. (21,11)
He was then able to raise the experience of the Divine revelation he merited there, to seven other wells that were to lead to a sanctification of G-d's Name in the world.