Parshat Toldot: A Night in Gerar

“And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that had been in the days of Avraham, and Yitzchak went to Avimelech the king of the Pelishtim, to Gerar.” (Beresheit 26:1)

This passage introduces a narrative that in some ways is one of the most enigmatic episodes in Sefer Beresheit. The Torah tells us that there was a famine in the Land of Canaan. Yitzchak realizes that he must relocate in order to provide for his family. He travels to Gerar. Gerar is in the portion of the Land of Canaan occupied by the Pelishtim. He considers traveling from Gerar to Egypt. However, Hashem appears to Yitzchak and tells him that he should not leave the Land of Canaan. Yitzchak remains in Gerar. The men of Gerar express interest in Yitzchak’s wife, Rivkah. Yitzchak decides that he should respond that Rivkah is his sister. Eventually, Avimelech, the king of the Pelishtim, discovers that Rivkah is Yitzchak’s wife. He chastises Yitzchak for concealing Rivkah’s identity. He explains to Yitzchak that this subterfuge could have resulted in disaster. One of the men, not realizing that Rivkah was married, might have taken her as a wife. Avimelech commands his nation not to harass Yitzchak and Rivkah.

Yitzchak plants crops. Despite the famine, his efforts yield abundant crops. Yitzchak becomes wealthy and his success evokes the jealousy of the Pelishtim. Avimelech suggests that Yitzchak relocate. Yitzchak follows these instructions and moves to Nachal Gerar.

In Nachal Gerar the conflict between Yitzchak and the Pelishtim continues. They are constantly engaged is disputes over water rights. Eventually, Yitzchak succeeds in developing a well that is not disputed. Again, Hashem appears to Yitzchak and assures him that He will protect him and bless him. Yitzchak builds an altar and offers thanks and praise to Hashem.

Avimelech comes to Yitzchak with a delegation. Yitzchak expresses his surprise at this visit. Avimelech had sent him away and now he is seeking his friendship! Avimelech responds that it is clear that Yitzchak enjoys a special relationship with Hashem. He denies that he has ever wished or caused Yitzchak any harm. He asks Yitzchak to enter into a treaty of friendship. Yitzchak agrees. The narrative ends with Yitzchak’s servants informing him that they have discovered additional water. Yitzchak names the new well Shivah. This name is a derivative of the word she’vuah – oath. It is a memorial to the treaty made with Avimelech.

Every episode of the Torah is designed to teach a lesson. Sometimes an episode can be understood from various perspectives and at various levels. As a result, one episode can yield a number of lessons. But usually there is some obvious message. In this instance, it is difficult to determine the message of the narrative. What are we to learn from this episode?

Furthermore, the Torah does not deal extensively with Yitzchak. We are told very little of his life. This is the only episode in the entire Torah in which Yitzchak is clearly the main character. It seems that this is the incident in his life that is most essential to the message of the Torah. Why is this episode so important?

Our Sages often comment that the experiences of our forefathers are a sign, or indicator, to their descendants. This comment can be understood in many ways. It can be interpreted as asserting that there is a mystical relationship between the events experienced by our forefathers and the later experiences of their descendants. However, the comments can also be understood in a simpler manner. The experiences of our forefathers often serve as a paradigm, or template, for future events. We can study the experiences of our forefathers, learn from them, and apply these lessons to our own lives. What is the paradigm described in this narrative? What lesson can we learn from this episode that we can apply to our own lives? In order to answer these questions, we must consider some elements of the episode more carefully.

“And Yitzchak sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundred fold, and Hashem blessed him. And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great. And he had possessions of sheep and possessions of cattle and much production, and the Pelishtim envied him. And all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Avraham, his father, the Pelishtim stopped them up and filled them with earth. And Avimelech said to Yitzchak, “Go away from us, for you have become much stronger than we.” (Beresheit 26:12-16)

As explained above, Yitzchak planted while in Gerar and his efforts yielded a rich harvest. Yitzchak continued to be successful and his wealth grew. The Pelishtim were jealous. This jealousy had two results: First, the Pelishtim destroyed the wells that Avraham had dug in Gerar. Avraham had also lived in Gerar. During his time in Gerar he was also very successful and Avimelech entered into a treaty with him. Avraham had dug various wells. These are the wells the Pelishtim now destroyed. Second, Avimelech instructed Yitzchak to leave Gerar.

This response is difficult to understand. We can understand the Pelishtim’s jealousy. Jealousy is a natural human response. However, the Pelishtim expressed their jealousy in a rather bizarre and self-destructive manner. The wells that Avraham had developed were an important element of the infrastructure that benefited all of the people of the land. Especially in a time a famine, wells are an invaluable resource. It seems that by destroying these wells the Pelishtim harmed themselves at least as much as they harmed Yitzchak!

Avimelech drove Yitzchak from Gerar. But Yitzchak derived his wealth from his successful harvest. It was a time a famine. The Pelishtim needed food. Yitzchak’s success in his agricultural endeavors probably saved numerous lives. Why send away the one source of hope at a time of desperation? In other words, both of these responses seem remarkably self-destructive. Why were the Pelishtim determined to strike out at Yitzchak even at their own expense?

Rashi makes an interesting comment regarding the Pelishtim’s motivation for destroying the wells. He explains that the Pelishtim offered a reason for their actions. They explained that they were afraid that their land might be attacked. These wells could not be protected. They could be easily captured by their enemies and used to support the attacking armies.[1] Rashi’s comments are somewhat ambiguous. He comments that the Pelishtim offered this explanation. This seems to imply that this explanation was not their true motive. They offered this explanation rather than revealing their real reasons for destroying the wells. But Rashi does not indicate the true motivation.

Rav Ovadia Sforno’s comments provide an insight that may answer this question. He asks: What was the source of the Pelishtim’s jealousy? He explains that the Pelishtim observed that Yitzchak’s agricultural efforts were remarkably successful and their own were correspondingly fruitless.[2]

It is not difficult to identify the message that this phenomenon communicated to the Pelishtim: The land responded with abundance to the efforts of Yitzchak and rejected their efforts. This phenomenon communicated an affinity between Yitzchak and the Land of Canaan. It also communicated that the land responded to them as aliens and usurpers. In other words, not only was it clear to the Pelishtim that Yitzchak enjoyed Hashem’s providence, but it was also clear that Yitzchak had a special relationship with the land they regarded as their own!

We can now understand their response of destroying Avraham’s wells and chasing Yitzchak away. These wells represented an inter-generational connection to the land. Before Yitzchak, Avraham had also achieved great success in this land. The wells were a reminder of this inter-generational relationship to the land and the special connection that Avraham and Yitzchak had with the land. The Pelishtim wanted to deny this relationship and destroy any memorial of it. The wells had to be destroyed and it was imperative to drive Yitzchak away. In other words, the Pelishtim were willing to sacrifice their own welfare for a cause that they believed was more important than their immediate well-being. They felt that their claim to the land was at stake. They were determined to undermine and erase any claim that Yitzchak had to the land. In order to accomplish this end, they were willing to sacrifice their own well-being.

It seems that these events are a paradigm and template for current events. The Palestinian rejection of the State of Israel reflects exactly the same attitudes and includes the same measures attributed to the Pelishtim in our parasha. Like the Pelishtim, the Palestinians have no reservations against engaging in the most outlandish, self-destructive behaviors. They have ripped up much of the infrastructure left by Israel in its abandonment of Gaza. They needed this infrastructure but they could not tolerate any signs or memorials of Israel’s success in developing this arid, barren land. The Palestinians constantly acknowledge that they can only survive through access to Israel’s economy: Israel’s economy is their only source of jobs and Israel provides a market for any goods that the Palestinians can produce. But despite these compelling reasons to make peace with Israel, the Palestinians sacrifice their children in futile suicide bombings. They use their children and civilian population as human shields. These actions are clearly self-destructive. But they serve the greater end of attempting to wipe out any sign of a Jewish presence in the land.

Our parasha also offers important advice regarding how to respond to such attitudes. Yitzchak did succeed in forcing Avimelech to accept him. How did he secure this outcome?

Nachmanides explains that there are two factors that brought about this outcome. First, Hashem provided Yitzchak with His continual support. As a result, Avimelech realized that his best hope was to enter into a treaty with Yitzchak. This treaty would acknowledge Yitzchak’s right to dwell in the land. However, it would also secure the future of Avimelech’s people – Yitzchak would promise not to wage war against them. Second, implicit in Nachmanides’ comments is the observation that Avimelech only entered into this treaty because he knew that there was no alternative. He could never succeed in driving out Yitzchak and his descendants.[3]

This provides us with an important lesson: In order to triumph in our conflict with the Palestinians we must not allow them to have any hope of success. As long as they feel that there is a reasonable chance that we can be driven from the Land of Israel, they will never give up their battle. We must be victorious in every confrontation. This will require Hashem’s help and our determination. We cannot show weakness or doubt in the veracity of our rights to the land. This will require our own firm, unwavering commitment. Any doubt or defeat only encourages renewed violence.

It is unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation. We all wish to resolve our conflict with the Palestinians through reasoning and mutual understanding. But as long as the paradigm of this week’s parasha is the template for our relationship with the Palestinians, we cannot forget the lessons of the parasha. We must appeal to Hashem for His constant support and we must never waiver in our determination and convictions.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 26:15.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 26:14.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 26:29.