And Hashem appeared to him and said: Do not descend to Egypt. Dwell in the land that I tell you. Dwell in this land and I will be with you and I will bless you because to you and to your descendants I will give all of these lands. And I will fulfill the promise that I made to your father Avraham. (Sefer Beresheit 26:2-3)
1. Yitzchak relocation to Gerar
Virtually the Torah’s entire discussion of Yitzchak is contained in Parshat Toldot. Even in Parshat Toldot, Yitzchak often shares the central role in the narrative with Rivkah. Only in one incident is Yitzchak the sole central character of the narrative. This is the account of his experiences in the Land of the Pelishtim.
The Land of Cana’an is stricken by famine. Yitzchak decides to follow the example of his father, Avraham, and lead his family to Egypt for the duration of the famine. For both Avraham and Yitzchak, this was a logical decision. The Land of Cana’an – Israel – depends primarily upon precipitation for irrigation. Draught inevitably produces famine. Egypt’s agriculture is supported by the Nile River. Therefore, Egypt was often spared from regional droughts and famines. As Yitzchak prepares to descend to Egypt, Hashem appears to him and directs him to not travel to Egypt but to remain in the Land of Cana’an. Then, Hashem explains the reason He requires that Yitzchak remain in the Land of Cana’an. Hashem promised to give the Land of Cana’an to Avraham’s descendants. The fulfillment of this promise will begin with Yitzchak’s uninterrupted residence in the Land and continue with his descendents’ possession of the Land.
The reasoning of the passages is not completely clear. Yitzchak was told to remain in the Land of Cana’an because it had been given to him and his descendants. Yet, Yaakov left the Land of Cana’an with Hashem’s blessings in order to flee from the wrath of his brother Esav. Later, he and his children abandoned the Land of Cana’an and descended to Egypt in order to escape a famine that ravaged the region. Again, Yaakov’s descent to Egypt took place with Hashem’s blessing. Why was it inappropriate to Yitzchak to leave the land but acceptable for Yaakov to do so?
2. Two views on Hashem’s instruction to Yitzchak to remain in Cana’an
Netziv suggests that Hashem commanded Yitzchak to remain in to order to demonstrate his love for the Land of Israel. In other words, Yitzchak’s remaining in a time of famine would demonstrate that he was willing to endure hardship in order to remain within the Land., 
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers an alternative interpretation of the passages. He explains that Yitzchak was destined to be acknowledged by the people of the Land as a prince of Hashem. His occupation of the Land as Hashem’s prince would establish his presence and rightful title to the Land. Therefore, his descendents would return to a Land that was their legacy from their forefather Yitzchak. However, Yitzchak’s title to the Land was dependant upon his treating it as his own. Therefore, he could not abandon it in this time of famine. According to Sforno’s interpretation, the commandment to remain in the Land applied to Yitzchak. He was responsible to establish title over the Land. This mission did not apply to Yaakov. Therefore, when circumstances required that he leave the Land, he did so.
And Yitzchak dwelled in Gerar. (Sefer Beresheit 26:6)
3. Yitzchak’s conflict with the Pelishtim
Yitzchak remains in the Land of Israel, and following the example of his father, he settles in Gerrar. The Torah describes Yitzchak’s experiences in Gerar in some detail. Yitzchak arrives and – like Avraham – he conceals that Rivkah is his wife. He is discovered by the king – Avimelech – who commands the people to not harm Yitzchak or Rivkah. Despite the famine, Yitzchak is successful in harvesting a bumper crop, and while in Gerar, becomes increasingly wealthy.
Yitzchak’s success is followed by a number of unpleasant events. First, the Pelishtim destroy the wells that Avraham had developed in their land. Then, Avimelech, responding to jealously evoked by Yitzchak’s success, ask Yitzchak to leave Gerar and settle elsewhere.
Yitzchak re-digs the wells developed by Avraham and restores to them the names that had been given to them by his father. He digs additional wells. Ownership of the first two wells is contested by the Pelishtim. The first he names Eysek – meaning quarrel. The second he names Sitnah – meaning conflict or hostility. Yitzchak again relocates. Finally, he develops a new well and it is not contested. The Torah provides additional details of Yitzchak’s experiences. The account ends with Avimelech coming to Yitzchak and asking that they renew the covenant originally established between Avraham and the Pelishtim.
4. The symbolic meaning of Yitzchak’s wells
Nachmanides comments that this account is included in the Torah as an allusion to the future. The three wells developed by Yitzchak refer to the three Batai Mikdash – Holy Temples. The first and second were opposed by the nations of the world and eventually destroyed by the enemies of Bnai Yisrael. The final well represents the future and final Bait HaMikdash – Holy Temple. It will be accepted by all nations as Hashem’s sacred temple and will be a place for universal worship of Hashem.
Nachmanides’ comments and his interpretation of these passages require careful consideration. Is his conclusion that these passages are an allusion to future events based upon a tradition or is there some element within the passages that suggests this interpretation?
And all of the wells that the servants of his father dug during the days of Avraham his father the Pelishtim sealed and filled with dirt. (Sefer Beresheit 26:15)
And Yitzchak again dug the wells of water that they dug in the days of Avraham his father and that the Pelishtim had sealed after the death of Avraham and he called them by names corresponding with the names his father called them. (Sefer Beresheit 26:18)
5. The significance of the names Avraham assigned to his wells
As explained above, one of the conflicts between Yitzchak and the Pelishtim was over the wells that Avraham had developed in their land. The Pelishtim destroyed these wells and Yitzchak not only re-dug them, but he also reestablished the names given to the wells by his father. Why were these wells the source of such vigorous contention?
HaKetav VeHaKabalah offers a compelling response. He explains that Avraham chose the name for each of his wells very carefully. Each was assigned a name that communicated that Hashem is the only true G-d and only He should be worshiped. In other words, Avraham used each well as an educational tool. People would come to the well to draw its water. They would learn its name. The unusual name would provoke discussion and consideration of the message communicated by the name. During Avraham’s lifetime, the Pelishtim preserved the wells and their names. In part, this reflected an acceptance of the ideas communicated by the names and in part, the wells and their names were preserved out of respect to Avraham. With his passing, the Pelishtim reverted to their idolatry and they chose to forget Avraham. The wells, that were reminders of Avraham and his message, were destroyed. Yitzchak reestablished the wells and restored their names. This reflected his commitment to the mission of his father.
6. The strange names that Yitzchak assigned to his wells
It is interesting that Yitzchak was eager to reestablish his father’s wells and to restore their names, yet to the first two wells that he developed, he gave rather odd names that do not seem to communicate a message regarding Hashem or monotheism. Instead, these names communicate messages of conflict and strife! Perhaps, it is this odd behavior of Yitzchak that serves as the basis of Nachmanides’ comments.
The names that Yitzchak gave to his wells are difficult to understand if considered individually. However, when considered together, these names communicate an important message. Understanding this message requires appreciating the significance of the wells developed by Avraham and Yitzchak. These wells were an important economic resource for Yitzchak and Avraham. However, they were also an enormous contribution to the people of the region. Agriculture, settlement, and animal husbandry all require access to an adequate supply of water. In an arid region, the development of wells is a prerequisite for the settlement and the economic development of the region. Each well developed by Avraham and Yitzchak benefited all of the people of the area.
The wells are also a fitting representation of the religious message communicated by Avraham and Yitzchak. These ideas elevated humankind from paganism and barbarity and established monotheism and justice. Avraham reinforced the association of the wells with his revolutionary message by assigning each of his wells a name that communicated an important idea.
7. Yitzchak preserved his story through the names he assigned the wells
Taken together, the names that Yitzchak gave to the wells describe Yitzchak’s experience among the Pelishtim. The name of the first well reveals, that initially, Yitzchak experienced rejection. He was the scion of Avraham and prosperous in his own right, nonetheless, he was shunned by his neighbors. This well which benefited all of the people in its region was destroyed by those whom it benefited. His continued prosperity and his successful development of a second well did not change matters. As the name of the second well reveals, his neighbors continued to reject him and were eager to forego the benefits of the well rather than accept Yitzchak. Nonetheless, Yitzchak persevered. He did not contend with his neighbors, he merely developed a third well. Suddenly, the neighbors who previously rejected him abandoned their resistance and accepted Yitzchak.
On a superficial level – without any reference of the deeper meaning of the wells – the account teaches an important lesson. Yitzchak did not achieve success and overcome resistance through conquest of his neighbors. He could not claim responsibility for his eventual success. He was powerless to overcome the resistance and hatred of his neighbors, and with the passage of time, this resistance remained intense and showed no sign of abating. However, suddenly Yitzchak’s neighbors concluded that they could no longer deny the evidence that Yitzchak enjoyed a providential relationship with his G-d – Hashem. With this realization, they no longer contended with him and accepted him. The lesson of the experience is that Yitzchak’s salvation and even triumph over resistance and antagonism was not the consequence of political maneuvers, military triumph, or shrewd financial plays. He did not achieve acceptance through a gradual, incremental process. Instead, banishment and rejection were suddenly replaced by acceptance and admiration. Without forewarning of change, the people came to accept the reality of Yitzchak’s special relationship with Hashem.
The names that Yitzchak selected for his wells demonstrate his confidence in his eventual success. The names he gave to the first two wells recall his conflict and strife with his neighbors. He gave these names to the wells knowing that the tension between him and the Pelishtim would be replaced by acceptance. He wanted the names to recall his emergence from persecution to acceptance and teach a lesson. Hashem’s deliverance is sudden and its precise moment is unknown. However, His covenant is eternal and will be fulfilled.
8. The eschatological message of Yitzchak’s wells
When the wells are considered as representations of Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s mission, the message of the passages is even more significant. The passages are no longer merely a biographical account of Yitzchak’s experiences. They emerge as an assertion regarding the triumph of truth and justice. The passages describe humanity’s encounter with the religious and moral system introduced by Avraham, promoted by Yitzchak, and embodied in the Torah given to Bnai Yisrael. The passages describe a prolong period of self-destructive rejection and denial. The advanced religious ideals and moral principles introduced by the Patriarchs and formalized in the Torah were a boon to all humanity. Nonetheless, these teachings – represented by the wells – are despised and discredited. Humanity dwells in a relentless self-imposed darkness. Enlightenment seems impossible. But suddenly and without forewarning, light penetrates the darkness and knowledge and truth triumph over ignorance.
Now, Nachmanides’ interpretation of the passages can be fully understood. The lessons represented by the wells are embodied in the Bait HaMikdash. It is the focal point of monotheistic and enlightened service to Hashem. From the Granite Chamber adjacent to the Temple, the highest court of the nation teaches justice and morality. Yitzchak’s experiences are a harbinger of the future. The first and second Temples were despised by the nations of the world and they were destroyed by them. Nonetheless, there will be a third Bait HaMikdash. This third Temple will be embraced and acknowledged by the very peoples who destroyed its predecessors.
9. A unique element of the Torah’s Eschatological vision
The eschatological vision represented by these passages is unique. Many religions and nations long for conquest and power over their enemies or those whose view oppose their own. Many religions seek to impose their ideas upon those who deny their “truth”. The Torah’s view of the Messianic era differs drastically from these perspectives. Ultimately, it is a vision of the triumph of ideas and the acceptance of the Torah’s truths – not their imposition upon others.
The triumph of the ideas embodied in these Temples will not be achieved through Bnai Yisrael’s conquest of its opponents or through the imposition of Torah doctrine upon “non-believers”. Instead, it will be achieved through the triumph of truth over falsehood and the capacity of the light of wisdom to penetrate the darkness of ignorance.
In short, Yitzchak’s experiences are representative of an eschatological perspective. They describe the destiny of his descendants – Bnai Yisrael. Yitzchak experiences presages the rejection, persecution, banishment, and eventual and sudden acceptance and triumph of Bnai Yisrael in the Messianic era.
1. According to Netziv’s interpretation of the passages, Yaakov’s journey to Charan in flight from Esav was not inappropriate. This was not an abandonment of the Land. Yitzchak and Rivkah remained. Yaakov left in order to save himself from his brother. His descent to Egypt is more difficult to explain. However, it should be noted that Yaakov himself was reluctant to leave the Land and Hashem spoke to him instructing him to descend to Egypt. Yaakov’s hesitancy and Hashem’s instruction suggest that in fact, Yaakov understood that the commandment given to his father to remain in the Land applied to him as well. Therefore, Hashem provided him with specific instructions to descend to Egypt.
2. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit 26:3.
3. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 26:3.
4. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 26:20.
5. Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, HaKetav VeHaKabalah, Commentary on the Sefer Beresheit 26:16.
6. According to Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Yitzchak was poor upon his arrival in Gerar. In Gerar, he became a financial success. Ibn Ezra does not provide and explanation for Yitzchak’s changes of fortune. However, the above provides a possible explanation. Yitzchak’s acquisition of wealth and prosperity in a time of famine and economic weakness contributed to their recognition of the providential relationship that he enjoyed with Hashem. The Pelishtim’s recognition of Yitzchak’s relationship with Hashem is most clearly evidenced by Avimelech’s decision to renew with Yitzchak the covenant that Pelishtim had established with Avraham.
7. Much of the material in this “Thoughts” is inspired by the insights of my Rebbe – Rav Yisrael Chait. However, it should be assumed that the material presented represents his views.