Digging for Water
What do we really know about Isaac, the second of our three patriarchs? The
Torah presents vivid and detailed accounts of the lives of his father
Abraham and his son Jacob, but Isaac himself always remains an obscure and
mysterious figure. We see Abraham prepared to sacrifice him on the
mountaintop. We see Abraham seeking a bride for him. We see him bless his
sons when he feels death approaching. And in the between, we see him
embroiled in a dogged dispute with the Philistines. Isaac digs wells, and as
soon as he finds water, the Philistines fill them or claim ownership for
What was so significant about the incident of the wells that the Torah saw
fit to record it for all time? What does it tell us about the person inside
this enigma named Isaac?
The commentators explain that the life work of each of the patriarchs was to
blaze a path along which the Jewish people would be able to draw closer to
the Creator. Abraham, the paragon of kindness, hospitality and unbounded
love, demonstrated that a relationship with the Creator could be forged on
the basis of a heart overflowing with compassion. But Isaac perceived that
more avenues were required, that it was far too limiting to expect all
future Jewish people to derive their spiritual and religious energies from
the emotional outpourings of the heart. What would happen if circumstances
deprived people of sufficient emotional resources? What if they suffered
burnout? Would they also lose their religious and spiritual bearings?
Isaac understood that his mission in life was to complement rather than just
duplicate his father's achievements. He bore the awesome responsibility of
adding an important new dimension to his father's revolutionary work. Isaac
therefore focused on introducing a solid foundation of discipline and
rigorous observance. This would provide religious stability, so that
emotional expansiveness and inspiration could then bring a person to the
most transcendent levels of spiritual experience.
These extraordinary qualities of determination, perseverance and relentless
self-discipline were amply illustrated by the incident of the wells.
Although the Philistines filled up his newly dug wells with rocks and soil,
he was not discouraged. He dug a second set, and once again found water.
When the Philistines deprived him of these wells too, he was nonetheless
undaunted. He dug a third set of wells, and finally the Philistines,
realizing the relentlessness of their opponent, acquiesced. Isaac applied
this very same determination to his conduct of his relationship with the
Creator, providing his offspring for all time with the paradigm of stable
and steadfast devotion.
The mystical teachers also discern a deeper symbolism here. They see the
entire affair of the disputed wells as a metaphor for the constant struggle
that characterizes the human condition. The water represents the pure
spirituality of the soul that lies buried deep underneath the suffocating
soil of physicality. A person's life is an unceasing effort to penetrate
that physical shell and connect with the spirituality underneath. And
unfortunately, success carries no guarantee of permanence. New layers of
soil can inundate the liberated water and buried it once again.. Then the
process begins again. It takes discipline and determination and a tenacious
refusal to concede defeat. With every spade of dirt that was excavated in
the search for water, Isaac was sending a powerful message down the halls of
time. Never give up. There is water down there. If you refuse to abandon the
search for water, you will undoubtedly be rewarded.
The young man was very excited. He had been invited to a Passover seder
for the first time in his life, and he couldn't wait to experience this
celebrated feast of freedom.
As the seder began, the young man waited eagerly as the Haggadah was read
and discussed. When would the feast begin? he wondered. Soon, he became
impatient, but he was determined to stay. Finally, the meal seemed about to
begin, but to his dismay, all the people were just eating matzoh and bitter
Disgruntled, he slipped away from the table and made a quiet exit. The next
day, his host met him in the street. "Why did you leave?" he chided. "Had
you stuck it out a few more minutes you would have been served the most
In our own lives, we all aspire to bring out the beautiful spiritual and
esthetic qualities we harbor deep in our hearts. But just when we feel we
have brought them, the grind of daily existence buries them once again under
a veritable mountain of rubble. It is terribly discouraging, but it is the
way of the world. Life is an unending struggle, and as our patriarch Isaac
showed us, determination and perseverance are the keys to ultimate success.
Failure is only a temporary setback, and if we dig hard enough and long
enough we will reach the sparkling water.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.