Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The wells of the Patriarchs

The episode of the wells in this week's parsha reads, in some ways, like a description of modern events. The modern Arabs of the Holy Land claim to be descended from the Biblical Philistines. Their behavior certainly conforms to how the ancient Philistines acted in relation to Isaac. Driven by famine, Isaac moves to Gerar, but does not trust the Philistines, apparently, as far as he can throw them, and accordingly he makes a significant omission in describing Rebecca to the Philistines, until Abimelech notices the couple sporting with each other. Then, to deflect Isaac's implicit accusation that the Philistines could not be trusted, he launches (in true "Palestinian" style) a counter-accusation. But notice that he doesn't actually deny what Isaac says.
Then Isaac sows and prospers, and the Philistines become envious of him. Isaac's prosperity doesn't take anything away from the Philistines, but they resent it anyway. How dare he be blessed by G-d! How dare he become prosperous while living with us! So they go to the wells which Abraham had dug, and fill them in with earth so no one can use them. [The chronology here is a little confusing. The text implies that the plugging of the wells had occurred earlier, but the fact of the plugging of the wells is told to us in a textual location that links it to the envy of the Philistines and Abimelech's order for Isaac to leave Gerar. So presumably the plugging of the wells had some tie in to the Philistine dislike of Isaac which the Torah does not think it necessary to inform us about. Or perhaps the Philistines, having earlier stopped up the wells, were motivated to go back and fill them in even more.] Plugging the wells has no apparent benefit to the Philistines, and possible hurt to them: if other used the wells, they did not lose thereby, and by filling in the wells, they denied themselves a potential source of water. Better that the Philistines thirst than others drink, apparently. Again, something that has the hallmarks of the true "Palestinian" style.
So Isaac moves a little, and re-digs the wells so he can make use of them; and then digs two more wells which the Philistines make trouble over, so he can not use them. Perhaps they imagined he was digging on their land; but after Isaac's servants do the labor and bring the wells to functioning, the Philistines claim them as their own. It is only when Isaac has dug a third well, farther away, that he is left alone. Then he moves on to Beersheva, and immediately G-d appears to him and blesses him, and his servants begin to dig a fourth well. While they are doing this, the Philistines pay the sort of friendly visit that true friends do not make. Isaac, given their past behavior, is suspicious, and states the truth plainly: they hated him and forced him out of Gerar. Abimelech smoothly answers that they really have been his friends all along, and now want to make a covenant of peace with Isaac, and claims, "as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace". The first two statements were patently untrue, and the third at the very least stretches the truth more than a little. And how many similar statements have we heard from the Arab side over the decades? But Isaac chooses to take their statements at face value, and makes a peace and swears an oath of amity with them, and they "depart from him in peace." Since it is the Torah itself, and not Abimelech, which says this, we can assume the Philistines actually did leave Isaac in peace. The one bit of Philistine behavior the modern "Palestinians" ought to imitate is exactly the one bit they choose not to. And to wind up this episode, Isaac's servants announce they have been succesful in digging the latest well.
The actions of the Philistines appear in a more sinister light once one remembers the teaching of the Zohar on this passage: the wells are symbols of the Shekinah, the supernal Well of Living Waters. The Philistines are trying to block the flow upon which our welfare, both spiritual and material, depend. Abraham originally dug them, Isaac tries to re-open them. Yet the Philistine do their best to stop his efforts...
"Let the Student apply his Ingeniuum."

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