Isaac and the Wells


Rabbi Reuven Mann



In Gen. 26:1-33, the Torah recounts the story of Isaac, and the famine as the reason why he journeyed to Avimelech in Garar. God then commanded Isaac not to descend to Egypt, for despite the famine, He assured Isaac that he would provide. The Torah notes that this famine was not the same as the one in Abraham’s days. Rashi states, the first famine of Abraham was a test for him. Abraham did not base his service of God on whether he enjoyed the fortunes of life. Ramban says Abraham was wrong, and should have had faith that God would provide, despite the famine. But Ramban is silent on Isaac’s very same decision. Therefore, leaving a land when it suffers a drought is not inherently wrong. Had God not revealed Himself to Isaac, it would appear correct for Isaac to travel towards Egypt, away from the stricken lands.


We see that God’s continued providence for Isaac was dependent on Abraham’s guard of God’s word. Regardless, each patriarch was worthy to have God’s name connected with him. Isaac was not simply perpetuating his studies received from his father Abraham: he added a new dimension, and derived his convictions from his own thinking. God promises His oath to Isaac, as Isaac deserved this providence due to his own merit.


When Isaac entered Garar, he did as Abraham his father, and claimed his wife Rebecca was his sister, to protect his own life. After time had passed, we read that the king, Avimelech, had looked from his window, witnessing Isaac engaged in some activity with Rebecca which clearly conveyed that their relationship was in fact not siblings, but husband and wife. Avimelech rebuked Isaac for endangering his people, one of whom might have taken Rebecca, bringing sin to them. Avimelech then commanded his people that no one should harm Isaac and Rebecca.


We then read that Isaac reaped a hundredfold, and grew very successful. His successes did not cease. The Philistines envied Isaac for this. There is an interesting Rashi on this section. He writes, “Better the dung of the mules of Isaac, than the silver and gold of Avimelech.” This is a strange idea: why would people prefer the former? The Torah goes on, “All the wells that his (Isaac’s) father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had and stopped up and filled with dirt.” For what reason does the Torah inform us of this obscure fact?


Ramban states there is no honor to Isaac in this whole story. So why was it recorded? He answers that the point of this section is to allude to something hidden: these three wells allude to the three Temples. The first well was named Esek, meaning contention. The first Temple was amidst much contention. The second well Isaac dug was named Sitna, for the hatred displayed by the Philistines towards Isaac. Similarly, during the second Temple, there was much hatred. Rechovos was the name of the third well, over which the philistines did not quarrel. Rechovos means breadth, as in the breadth of mind now afforded to Isaac. And in the third Temple, there will be peace. Rabbi Israel Chait commented that although there may be some future correlations, there must also be something in each Torah account, to which we may relate to in the here and now.



Emergence of the Second Patriarch

In what sense were Abraham and his son Isaac patriarchs? Isaac differed from Abraham. Abraham made his mark through his ability to interact with the world. He debated with many, and although eventually exiled, he resumed his teachings. However, there is another element responsible for their success at spreading knowledge of God: Divine providence. God miraculously saved Abraham on many occasions, paving the way for his continued teachings, while also creating his unparalleled reputation. Isaac was different. He was an “Oleh Temima”, a “wholly burnt offering” of sorts.  His energies were not directed to the world of the social, but exclusively towards knowledge. Coming so close to death when he was bound to the altar had a profound effect on the personality of Isaac. Thus, God told Isaac not to descend to Egypt; he was a different personality. So how did Isaac play a role as a patriarch?


Both famines were a result of providence. But in Isaac’s case, it did not have the purpose as a test, as was the case with regards to Abraham. During the famine in Isaac’s era, God instructed him to remain in the land. Why was this necessary?



The Wells

The wells were essential for Isaac’s emergence in his role as an independent patriarch. We are told that Isaac became very wealthy. But he does not cease in his monetary growth, as was the case with Avimelech. Avimelech was stagnant in his wealth. Therefore, the Philistines said they preferred Isaac’s mule dung to Avimelech’s riches. This means they respected Isaac who could take dung (famine) and make successes from it. This wealth created a great respect for Isaac. Avimelech then asked Isaac to leave Garar, as his continued dwelling in Garar made Avimelech, the king, look bad by comparison.


But the Philistines became envious. We learn that they filled up Abraham’s well. This demonstrated their denouncing of Abraham’s philosophy. Why didn’t the Philistines fill Abraham’s wells earlier? It is because when they saw the greatness of Isaac, they now learned that Abraham’s ideology was not a “flash in the pan”, a one-time movement. Isaac’s continuation of Abraham’s philosophy now created friction in Garar, as they could no longer view Abraham’s era as eclipsed by time. His philosophy was sustained through Isaac; there is a dynasty. The Philistines’ realization that Abraham’s philosophy was continuing was intolerable to their corrupt lifestyle. Had Abraham passed, along with his monotheistic views, they could let matters go. But this was not the case any longer. Thus, they desired to rebel against Abraham’s sustained philosophy. But the Philistines could not harm Isaac. They respected his wealth. So they attacked Abraham through stopping up his wells.


Isaac left, but then returned. Why? He did so for the express purpose of reopening Abraham’s wells. He made a separate journey back after having left, precisely to demonstrate why he came back: to resuscitate Abraham’s fame and teachings. What was the response of the Philistines? They strove with Isaac over his new wells. The Philistines attempted to negate the greatness of Isaac. The Philistines did not say, “ours is the water” as in the first well, demonstrating that the water was not the issue. Rather, Isaac’s fame was what they deplored. After a certain amount if time, they saw they could not bring down Isaac. The Philistines eventually succumbed to another emotion: their underlying respect for Isaac’s success. The adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them” enunciates this very change in the Philistines. Thus, the final well, which Isaac’s servants dug, was named “breadth.” Isaac was no longer attacked, as the emotion of adulation replaced the Philistines’ prior repulsion. This point is when Avimelech desired to secure a truce. Wealth draws people. This was the method through which Isaac became renown.


God orchestrated a famine, as the prefect backdrop to emphasize Isaac’s wealth. No one else prospered during this famine. Ultimately, Isaac returns to Abraham’s teaching ground, Beer Sheva. Isaac arrived physically at this location, and philosophically at his goal to be engaged in study. Thus we read, “He called out in God’s name”, meaning, he resumed teaching about God, his primary goal. We also learn that God’s plan was successful, as we read that Avimelech traveled to Isaac, recognizing his greatness. Isaac’s fame was now positive. Avimelech did not desire any truce with Isaac while he dwelled in Garar. It was only after his successes. Subsequent to his exile, Isaac became very wealthy, and this wealth was the groundwork necessary for others to recognize Isaac’s philosophy.


The Philistines realized that by applying Isaac’s philosophy, one could achieve success. This was exceptionally profound, while they endured a famine.