Saturday 18th November 2023 5th Kislev 5784
Parashat Toldot - KEEP DIGGING THOSE WELLS
Genesis 25:19 – 28:9; Malachi 1:1 – 2:7; Matthew 10:21-38
Matthew Absolon, Congregation Beth T'filah, Hollywood, FL
The reading for this week’s drash is a little longer than normal, as I want to capture the narrative laid out during this time of Isaac’s life. The Torah contrasts the values of Abraham and Isaac and, by extension, the values of God's chosen people, with the values of the heathen nations wherein they resided.
And Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy. He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. (Now the Philistines had stopped and filled with earth all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father.)
And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham. And he gave them the names that his father had given them. But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarreled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah. And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it. So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”
23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 32 That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him, “We have found water.” He called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day. Gen 26:12-33
Abraham was a well-digger. And he taught his son Isaac to be a well-digger. The key to surviving in the land of Israel is water. Water was the key 3000 years ago, and water is still the key to this day. The location, extraction, and efficient usage of water means the difference between life and death in our homeland. In modern times Israel has become a world leader in its innovative technologies surrounding the efficient usage of water. Israel has partnered with countries in desert regions of Africa, showing them how to turn dry, arid, and unproductive land into gardens and fields full of crops.
So important is water in the Middle East that the decisive battle for control of the Middle East during World War I was over the well of Beersheba, a well that was first dug in this week’s parasha. When the allied forces led by the Australian Light-Horsemen captured the well of Beersheba, they turned the tide of the war against the Ottoman Turks in World War 1.
I have an emotional response to this history because I grew up in rural Australia. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. I have been present when wells have been dug and water comes gushing forth from the ground below. From the first sign of wet soil to the final gushing of water to the surface, it is mirrored by the welling emotions of hope, exuberance, and finally relief. Relief because our efforts were not in vain. Relief because now we, our loved ones, and our livestock will not starve. Relief because there is hope for a future.
Isaac was a well-digger. Isaac believed in productivity. Isaac was a bringer of hope. Isaac believed in the future.
The Philistines, however, were well-destroyers. In the name of survival, it is understandable that one might capture a well and steal its life-giving water to provide for one’s own tribe. But to fill in a well and to destroy it, thus increasing the likelihood of malnutrition and starvation to one’s own family and tribe, requires a fiendish and perverse ethic. It is one evil to steal wealth. It is another level of evil to simply destroy it.
In Israel, water is wealth. So why did the Philistines fill in the wells?
He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him. Gen 26:14
The Hebrew word for “envied” in this text is not a passive emotion. It is a verb. It describes an envy that turns to anger. The Philistines were angry with Isaac, because Isaac was productive and successful. They were angry with Isaac, because Isaac believed in a future. They were angry with Isaac, because Isaac revived the land, and brought hope to its inhabitants.
There is a lesson to be learned in this interaction, and it is this: There exists a spirit which, against all sound logic, prefers jealousy over cooperation; anger over humility; destruction over productivity. It is a dark and devilish spirit.
The 19th century rabbi Ha’amek Davar, drawing from Midrash Rabbah, explains that this verse is prophetic, foreshadowing the future exiles when Jewish residency rights were restricted, and our success will engender the jealousy of the nations leading to our continual banishment. Moreover, it is not just anti-Jewish to be jealous of success, it is anti-God. To hate wealth and productivity and material success is a form of cultural nihilism that steals the bread from the future generation of children not yet born. To hate productivity is to hate life itself.
But the Jewish spirit is a productive spirit. The Jewish spirit works for the future and believes against all hope that the desert can indeed bloom. The Jewish spirit believes that through the diligent application of hard work in the land where we sojourn, we will not just survive, but we will thrive.
Our Lord Yeshua speaks of this spirit of productivity in expansive terms in the Parable of the Talents. The wicked and unproductive servant describes the Master, allegorically speaking of God, in this way: “Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.” The Master berates the unproductive servant and says these difficult words: “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matt 25:29). In other words, the good servant is one who is working, diligent, and productive. Just like Abraham. Just like Isaac.
This is our spiritual heritage. We belong to a long line of hopeful and ambitious men and women who under Gods providential hand have been well-diggers. And just like the Philistines in this parasha, there are always those who hate us precisely because of our productivity.
We must never forget that our productivity is inseparably tied to our holy calling. Our productivity is inseparably tied to the spirit of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our productivity is inseparably tied the nature of our heavenly Father.
The challenge that we face in Israel today bears the hallmarks of this ancient conflict between Isaac and the Philistines of his day. We Jews are dedicated to digging wells, sowing crops, and living a productive life. Hamas is dedicated to destroying wells, burning crops, and disseminating death. The more we are productive, the more they hate us for it, even if they are the recipients of our abundance.
As I close, I want to leave a note of exhortation to the UMJC community. Be like your forefathers Abraham and Isaac. Dig wells. Plant crops. Work with all diligence. Resist the haters. Believe in the future. Hold fast to hope. Don’t just survive. Thrive!