יום רביעי, 19 בנובמבר 2014

Diggings and signs

The Wells of Isaac: Diggings and Signs.

Pinchas Leiser

In a dispute over cultural superiority, a denizen of Rome proudly proclaimed to a Jerusalemite, "Did you know that in excavations at Rome they found underground wires?!"
"Nu, so what?"
The Roman responded in a victorious tone: "It shows that in Rome, 2,000 years ago, they already had the telephone..."
The Jerusalemite responded, "And do you know what they found in Jerusalem excavations?"
"So what?" was the Roman's response.
"It shows that in Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago, they already had wireless..."

A fascinating field of biblical exegesis and of the philosophy of history is the attempt to learn about the present and future from the past. Yet this area is incredibly complex and filled with problems, so that it sometimes seems that the message gleaned is nourished at least as much by the exegete's world-view as by the reading of the text.
RaMBaN, in his commentary on the Torah, briefly formulates the exegetical principle of "the acts of the forefathers are a sign to the children":

And Abram passed through the land to the place of Shekhem:  This important rule, which should be understood in all the following portions dealing with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, was concisely mentioned by our Rabbis (Tanhuma 9): "All that happened to the forefathers is a sign for the children;" therefore the Bible dwells on the story of the journeys and the digging of wells and the rest of the events. Though one might think that these are extraneous matters with no purpose, they all come to tell the future. For whenever something would happen to one of the three forefather-prophets, he would learn from it what had been decreed to happen to his descendants. (RaMBaN Genesis 12:6)

Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Lontshitz, the author of the Kli Yakar commentary, applies this principle to the story of Isaac's digging of the wells in our weekly portion:

And Isaac's servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of spring water.  RaMBaN and Toldot Yitzchak and Menorat Hamaor wrote, "since all that happened to the forefathers was a sign for the children," therefore they found it appropriate to expound the stories of these wells as being about the three Holy Temples that were called wells of spring water: Just as they quarreled about the two wells and called the third Rehovot, so with the First and Second Temples the nations fought against Israel until they destroyed her, and the Third, may it be built speedily in our days, was called Rehovot...
And they did not quarrel over the third well, for the Third Temple will be built by the king Messiah of whom it is said (Isaiah 9:6): for the increase of the realm and for peace without end, for there will be only peace and truth in his time. Thus was it called Rehovot, for then the Lord will expand (yarhiv) their borders. When there is strife or two Hebrews fighting, even in a city as large as Antioch, there is not enough room for them both even in a very great area, the lack of space oppresses them, as is the case even today, due to our sins. The opposite is the case when there is peace among Israel.  Even though we multiply and the Land's inhabitants are numerous, nevertheless it is expansive for them and there is no oppressor... Therefore it says for the Lord has made room (yarhiv) for us even though we be shall be fruitful in the land, and its inhabitants will be numerous, nonetheless the land will be expansive before them. Moreover, we know that many left the land during the Second Temple because of conflict caused by the wickedness of its inhabitants.  That is why Isaac said that when peace arrives we shall be fruitful in the land for we will not need to leave it. (Kli Yakar Bereishit 26:19)

RaShBaM, in his interpretation of the first verse of the Binding of Isaac (akeda), gives an interesting twist to the idea of a trial and sees in the akeda a sort of punishment meted out to Abraham for having ceded control of Philistia by entering into a covenant with Abimelech:

And it came to pass after these things: Any time it says after these things, it is connected to the previous section... Here too: after {these things, i.e. that] Abraham signed a treaty with Abimelech, obligating Abraham's children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well, and gave him seven lambs, God was angry about this, since the land of the Philistines was given to Abraham, and in the book of Joshua, too, the cities of the five Philistine lords are entered in the lottery as included in the borders of Israel, and God had commanded them you shall save alive nothing that breathes.  Therefore God tested [nissa] Abraham: he provoked him and caused him anguish, [as we see in other verses where the verb nsh connotes provocation.]  It was as if God said, "You were so proud of the son I gave you that you entered a covenant between yourselves and their children. Now go and bring him as a sacrifice and see what good your treaty-signing does."
Similarly I found later in the midrash on Samuel: And the ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. It says [in the story of Abraham and Abimelech],  These seven ewe lambs you shall take of my hand.  The Holy One, Blessed be He said to him, "You gave him seven lambs, I swear by your life that his children will make seven wars on your children and vanquish them." Alternately, "By your life, his children will kill seven righteous men from among your children: Samson, Hofni, Pinhas, Saul and his three sons." Alternately, "By your life, his sons will destroy seven sanctuaries: the Tabernacle, Gilgal, Nob, Shiloh, Gibeon, and two Temples." Alternately, "Because the Ark will remain in the country of the Philistines seven months." (RaShBaM Bereishit 22:1)

In other words, God is angry with Abraham and therefore provokes him and causes him pain.

Of course the devotees of the Whole Land of Israel in our days heartily enjoy this interpretation of RaShBaM and learn from it that there is a prohibition on signing agreements with Gentiles involving concessions in the Land of Israel, which was divinely promised to us.

Yet it goes without saying that most of our commentators throughout the generations (excepting Hizkuni, who copies RaShBaM’s words on this verse) do not hold that the akeda, the final and most difficult of Abraham's trials, was a punishment. Even if we want to expound on the adjoining of the sections of after these things and find a causal connection between this section and the preceding one (according to the exegetical rule invoked by RaShBaM himself), given that these things were not specified, the reader could connect the adjoining of the section of Ishmael's exile to the akeda just as logically, and thereby come to a completely different understanding of the akeda. We will suffice with this comment, given that out purpose here is not a deep understanding of the akeda section, but in examining the idea of an agreement with a Gentile.

In chapter 26, the Torah tells us of Isaac's dwelling in Gerar, in Philistia, with Abimelech. God there repeats his promise to Abraham and tells him, Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you, and to thy seed, I will give all these countries and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father (26:3).  We read later in this section (verses 15-23) about the breach of this agreement between Abraham and Abimelech by the latter's servants and about the conflict between the shepherds of Gerar and Isaac's shepherds concerning the water in the wells dug by Isaac.

The Torah tells that these wells were stopped up.  The author of the Sforno commentary explains the phrase the Philistines had stopped them up: "Since they feared Abimelech’s order not to harm Isaac, they stopped up the wells in their hate-filled jealousy." It seems, according to this approach, that the making of peace between Abimelech and Isaac was not to the liking of some Philistines, and these dissatisfied ones were those who broke the agreement.

Verse 22 tells of the other well, over which the shepherds of Isaac and Gerar did not fight, and in verses 28-31 Abimelech and Isaac enter another agreement, following the suggestion of Abimelech. The author of Hizkuni explains: Let us make a covenant with you: even though Abraham and Abimelech already swore for three generations, Abimelech nevertheless wanted to establish a new covenant between them, since he had breached the agreement [both] in the matter of the wells and by sending him away." (Hizkuni, Bereishit 26:28)

The Torah relates that Isaac agreed to renew the covenant, despite its breach in the past, perhaps from awareness that there are ups and downs in any process and from a preference for accord over hostility.

If we examine the above-cited words of the Kli Yakar on these verses, according to the principle of "the acts of the forefathers are a sign to the children," we learn that:
The Third Temple, hinted to by Isaac's third well, Rehovot, will be built only in the days of peace, and expanded borders are largely dependent on the ability of people to live together in peace, with no one clipping the other's wings.

For whatever reason, the signs that the children see in the acts of the forefathers are largely dependent on the values they wish to embrace and pass to the following generations.

Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist

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