“Digging Wells”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of a famine that once again strikes the land of Canaan, this time during the lifetime of Isaac. Isaac, like his father Abraham before him, goes down to the land of Avimelech, King of Gerar, to find relief.

After a brief sojourn in Gerar, Avimelech realizes that Isaac is living with Rebeccah, not as a sister, but as a wife, and berates Isaac for deceiving him and his people, and almost causing them to sin. Isaac, however, is not asked to leave the land.

Isaac settles in Gerar, plants corn, and due to G-d’s blessing, reaps one hundredfold. Because of Isaac’s “Midas touch,” he becomes staggeringly wealthy. The citizens of Gerar soon become jealous of him and begin to harass him. Scripture tells us that the Philistines stopped up all the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug, filling them with earth.

Finally, Avimelech demands that Isaac leave Gerar because he has become too mighty and too great. Poor, homeless Isaac begins to wander in the valley of Gerar and starts digging wells, uncovering the same stopped up wells that his father, Abraham, had dug. Isaac makes a point of calling the wells by the same names that his father had called them.

Isaac’s servants continue to dig wells in the valley and find fresh water. The shepherds of Gerar quarrel with Isaac’s shepherds, claiming that the water belongs to them. Isaac calls that well Esek, which means “quarrel.” Isaac and his workers dig a second well, which was also the subject of dispute, and is called Sitnah, which means “enmity.” Isaac then moves from that location and digs another well. The new well was not quarreled over, and Isaac calls the name of the well Rechovot (spacious), because now G-d has granted him ample space, and he can now be fruitful in the land.

We see that, especially in comparison to Abraham and Jacob, Isaac appears to be rather passive. After being expelled from Gerar, Isaac simply takes up a new profession, or perhaps a hobby–digging wells. Of course, from a business point of view, finding new sources of water could be very lucrative, especially if the wells are developed commercially to provide water for the local inhabitants. The Torah does not indicate that Isaac did anything entrepreneurial. The only thing the Torah notes about the wells is that they were quarreled over, and that Isaac named them appropriate names. The other information the Torah shares is that Isaac went to the locations of his father’s wells and reopened them. Digging wells seems like a strange preoccupation for a great Patriarch like Isaac, but perhaps not so strange for someone of enormous wealth.

We know that digging wells was something of a tradition in Isaac’s family. After all, it was Abraham’s custom to go around digging wells and calling out the name of G-d. Wells, in ancient times, were known as gathering places where young men fraternized, shepherds met shepherdesses, and much internal information was exchanged. Like his father Abraham, Isaac digs wells that provide water, a vital source of life. But clearly the wells were not only for water. Isaac, like Abraham, often names the wells by invoking the name of G-d, so that the wells might serve as “outreach posts”–virtual advertisements for the monotheistic religion that the children of Abraham were trying to propagate. It may not be at all presumptuous to imagine the ancient marketing campaign and the advertisements that were publicized, “Come to our wells, make a blessing over the water,” “Slake your thirst, and pronounce the name of G-d.” The wells served as a place where wayfarers could refresh and relax and be invited, in a non-threatening manner, to invoke the name of G-d.

But there may very well have been another reason that Isaac dug these wells. In perhaps the first overt act of historical anti-Semitism, Isaac had just been expelled from Gerar. Avimelech, King of Gerar, says to Isaac brazenly,(Genesis 26:15) “Laych may’eeh’mah’noo, kee ah’tzam’tah mee’meh’noo m’od,” Get out of here because you have become much mightier than we! Furthermore, it is quite likely that this expulsion order was accompanied by covert, and probably overt, expressions of anti-Semitism on the part of the people of Gerar. Conceivably, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on the walls, and Isaac and members of his family were subjected to frequent taunts of “Dirty Jew.” By digging the wells and calling out in the name of G-d, Isaac made a bold statement declaring, in effect, “If I am going to suffer as a Jew, I will suffer as a proud Jew!” Rather than get defensive or embarrassed, Isaac stands up tall, with his big kippah on his head and his strong public Jewish persona, and announces, “You may taunt me, but I am, and always will be, proud to be a Jew.”

It is told of Sylva Zalmenson, the famous Russian refusnik, that when she was incarcerated for defying the all-powerful Russian government, she said that, although she was never a religious Jew, no morsel of non-kosher food would pass through her lips as long as she is imprisoned as a Jew. “As long as I suffer as a Jew,” she said, “I will live as a Jew.”

Throughout Jewish history, there have been numerous cases of Jews trying to escape their destiny by changing their names and their clothing, by hiding their Jewishness–like the Conversos of Spain, and by outright conversion out of Judaism.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), one of the greatest German poets of all times, was certain that his conversion from Judaism to Christianity would be the means for him to achieve liberation and freedom. In one of his letters he wrote that he was not baptized because he believed in Christianity—but rather that “Baptism is the ticket to entry into European culture.” By the end of his life, Heinrich Heine realized that he was wrong, and wrote: “I regret that I was baptized. Now I am hated by the Christians and the Jews. And I don’t see that it’s helped me very much!”

When Isaac’s servants dug the wells, they encountered resistance from the Philistines. However, when Isaac digs the wells himself, and asserts himself proudly and publicly as a Jew (Genesis 26:22), there is no resistance.

There is a bitter lesson to be learned from history: Jews are most respected by non-Jews when they respect themselves, and most detested when they detest themselves. There is no escaping Jewish destiny. It is therefore imperative to conduct one’s life in an ethical and moral manner, so that one can hold one’s head up high and proudly say, “I am a Jew. I am a Jew. I am a Jew.”

May you be blessed.