Whenever the Torah elaborates upon seemingly trivial details or events, the attentive student of Jewish philosophy becomes especially attentive.
Consequently, the episode of Yitzchok (Isaac) in the land of the P’lishtim (Philistines), by virtue of the amount of space devoted to it in scripture, cries out for explanation.
The narrative of Bereishis 26 tells us that, responding to a famine in the land of Canaan, Yitzchok followed in the footsteps of his father and traveled to the more fertile land of the P’lishtim to await times of renewed prosperity. HaShem blessed Yitzchok with such extraordinary wealth that the P’lishtim became jealous of him and stopped up the wells that had been dug in the days of Avrohom. Avimelech, the king of the P’lishtim, ordered Yitzchok to depart.
Yitzchok camped in the neighboring land of Gerar, and re-dug the wells his father had dug there, calling them by the same names his father had given them. But the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with him over the wells, claiming the water was theirs. Yitzchok yielded and dug new wells, but the shepherds of Gerar disputed these, too.
Only when Yitzchok distanced himself and again dug new wells did the shepherds of Gerar no longer quarrel with him. But instead of remaining where he was, Yitzchok traveled further into the land of his birth, to Be’er Sheva. There, HaShem appeared to him and declared, Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Yitzchok settled there and dug new wells.
The sages tell us that water, the source of all physical life, is an allegory for Torah, the source of all spiritual life. If so, the wells in our parsha’s narrative may be understood to symbolize Yitzchok’s efforts to provide spiritual life to all mankind by creating a greater connection between the physical world and the “waters” of Torah.
According to this interpretation, Yitzchok first attempted to continue the work of his father by living among the P’lishtim as his father had. But where Avrohom had lived peacefully among the P’lishtim, Yitzchok’s presence among them became the cause of strife, so that they stopped up the wells that had been dug in the days of his father — that is, they rejected the spiritual lessons Avrohom had once taught them because of the resentment they felt toward Yitzchok.
So Yitzchok moved to Gerar, at the outskirts of the P’lishti community, seeking to carry on his father’s work where the lessons of spirituality had been forgotten, by re-digging the wells his father had dug and calling them by the same names. But again, his efforts produced only discord.
So Yitzchok moved away from the Plishtim entirely and dug new wells of his own. This time he encountered no resistance but, or so it seems, he achieved no great success either. And so Yitzchok returned to his own land, perhaps recognizing that, after three attempts and failures to serve HaShem in the style of his father, it was time to strike out in a new direction, to define himself as a servant of the Almighty according to his own talents and abilities rather than continuing to pursue a course identical to his father’s.
We know that Avrohom perfected his service according to his attribute of chesed — selfless loving-kindness. And as much as he may have sought to continue along the path charted by his father, Yitzchok had and entirely different character, defined as gevurah — spiritual self-discipline. Where Avrohom had defined his service in terms of his relationship with other people, Yitzchok defined his service in terms of his relationship with G-d. In pursuit of his own unique spiritual self-perfection, he reached the point where it was time to strike out on his own.
But Yitzchok knew the importance of building upon the accomplishments of previous generations and respecting the traditions of those who have come before. Perhaps he questioned his own decision, wondering if he had chosen wisely in charting his own path.
And so G-d appeared to Yitzchok and declared, Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Although he had departed from Avrohom’s style, by staying loyal to the essential values Avrohom had instilled in him, Yitzchok remained a true servant of HaShem. Thus assured, Yitzchok ceased his wanderings and dug “wells” if his own. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, Avimelech came to Yitzchok and declared, We have seen that G-d is with you.
Astonishingly, after Yitzchok moved away, the P’lishtim recognized what they had not when he had lived in their midst. By following the callings of his soul, by respecting the teachings of his father while defining himself according to his own unique abilites and character, Yitzchok achieved so profound a sanctification of G-d’s name that he could inspire the P’lishtim to attach themselves to his spiritual nature even after he had removed himself from among them.
And indeed, on that very day, Yitzchok’s servants came to him announcing that they had found water. By striking the perfect balance between the tradition and individualism, by finding his own path without foresaking the path of his father, by clinging to the traditions of the previous generation while simultaneously developing his own sense of self, Yitzchok brought forth a fresh wellspring of spiritual energy, sending out ripples to every corner of the world. In this way, Yitzchok brought mankind one step closer to its final redemption, while providing his children with the formula for how to carry on in each and every generation.