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Well, Well, Well

By: Rav Michael Susman

As we have noted in the past, in this week’s Parsha we read of Avraham Avinu departing the stage of the development of Am Yisrael, but not before ensuring that his son Yitzhak would assume the mantle of Patriarch.  The two major events described in the Parsha, the death and burial of Sara Imeinu and the subsequent successful search for a wife for Yitzhak, are the cornerstones of Avraham’s farewell and Yitzhak’s ascendency to the stage. 

While the death and burial of Sara is obviously the end of a relationship for the ages, the fact is that Avraham Avinu will live close to forty more years.  There is no more reason to think that Sara’s death will presage the end of Avraham’s activity than the pre-mature death of Rachayl Imenu would end Yaakov Avinu’s.  Yet, as we discussed previously (click here) with the exception of finding a wife for Yitzhak, which is also done through a messenger and not by Avraham directly, Avraham simply passes from the scene.  This week we will discuss that first great event of Yitzhak’s “post” Avraham Avinu life, his marriage to Rivka Imenu.

At the end of this week’s Parsha (24:62-67) we read the well-known description of the first meeting between Yitzhak and Rivka. It is certainly memorable, after all, not many of us can lay claim to literally knocking our spouses out of the saddle as Yitzhak’s saintly appearance does to Rivka at first sight.  Perhaps because of the intensity of this imagery we pay less attention than we should to where Yitzhak was coming from. In passuk 62 we read that Yitzhak was coming from B’ear L’achai Roi, The Well of L'achai Roi.  This is not the first time that we have heard of this particular well.  In Parshat Lech Lecha (16:15) we are told that this name was given to the well by Hagar, the maidservant of Sara who became Avraham’s wife. This was the place to which Hagar had fled from Sara’s wrath and was told by the Angel that she met there to return to Avraham and Sara and that she would bear Avraham a son.  What was Yitzhak doing at that well, and why was it necessary for the Torah to give us this information?

While Yishmael is mentioned at length at the end of our Parsha, once Sara and Avraham expel Hagar and Yishmael from their home we have no direct mention of Hagar in Chumash.  Many of us are familiar with the Midrash that identifies Ketura, who Avraham marries after the death of Sara (25:1) as Hagar. Less well known is the Midrash, quoted by Rashi (24:62) that it was none other than Yitzhak who went and brought Hagar back to his father after Sara’s death. The Midrash derives this from the fact that Yitzhak came from B'ear L’achai Roi. Apparently it was to this place that Hagar had returned after leaving Avraham and it was where Yitzhak found her in order to return her to his father’s home. The connection then, in naming the place from which Yitzhak came, is to the death of Sara at the beginning of the Parsha, the event which paved the way for the return of Hagar.

S’forno however links the mention of B’ear L’achai Roi to the second theme of the Parsha, the search for a wife for Yitzhak.  Yitzhak was well aware of the fact that Hagar’s own prayers had been answered at B’ear L’achai Roi.  Yitzhak therefore goes himself to that very same place to pray for a successful end to Avraham’s servant Eliezer’s search for a spouse for him.  If S’forno is correct that means that there were two tefillot in our Parsha for a wife for Yitzhak, one on the part of Eliezer that his search for a wife for Yitzhak should be successful,  and one by Yitzhak himself. Both of these Tefillot take place by a well. The fact that Yitzhak prayed by the well may provide some insight into a Midrash which seems somewhat puzzling and which will, in fact, be the focus of the rest of our shiur.

The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemot 10) states that three (people) found their partners at the well. And who were they? Yitzhak, Yaakov and Moshe Rabbenu, as it states, and Yitzhak came from B’ear L’achai Roi…  The Midrash is puzzling because, surely, the well which provided Yitzhak with his match was the one in Haran where Eliezer met Rivka, and not one hundreds of miles away in the Negev!  Perhaps we can answer that it was Yitzhak’s prayer at this well which allowed the Midrash to ascribe Yitzhak and Rivka’s marriage to this well rather than the one in Haran.  (It is worth noting that a parallel Midrash in Shmot Rabba 1:32 notes both B’ear L’achai Roi as well as the well in Haran as being the place where the match was made).  

This Midrash places a clear emphasis on the well as the place where Yitzhak, Yaakov and Moshe met their wives.  What is so special about a well that the Midrash would emphasize the link so strongly?

In two separate essays (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, second series, pp122-141 and Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, third series pp95-110) Rav Elchanan Samet deals with Eliezer’s search for a bride for Yitzhak and its connection to the other matches made at a well. While it is highly recommended to read both essays I would like to focus on two major points that he makes, one regarding Eliezer’s specific search and the other regarding how the stories of Yitzhak, Yaakov and Moshe all tie together.  Rav Samet takes the well-known idea that Eliezer was looking for a wife who embodied the middot of Chesed that defined Avraham Avinu’s home and examines how Eliezer’s actions guided him toward that goal. Eliezer constructs a test which will allow him to discern this character trait. Will the girl he meets offer him water and then offer to bring sufficient water for his camels? But, if the goal is to see if Rivka is really an embodiment of Chessed asks Rav Samet, is this a fair test?  Would any of us think it reasonable to expect a young girl to shlep buckets of water for hours while an able-bodied man and all his servants just hang around watching? Surely we don’t wish to equate Chessed with allowing oneself to be taken advantage of! Chessed is done for those who need it, not for those who aren’t interested in helping themselves. Yet that seems to be exactly what happened. So how can this test be considered to be fair?

To answer this question Rav Samet brings us to the centrality of the well in ancient societies.  The well was the place which was the center of life and communal activity on the one hand, but on the other hand it generally took up a relatively small geographical area.  As a result there were clear boundaries and rules regulating its use.  One such rule  was that at certain times of the day when the girls were going to fetch water for household use men were not allowed near the well (Rav Samet points out that this custom continues to this day in Bedouin communities).  If this is correct then we can understand why Eliezer and his servants did not help and why the test was a fair one. Rivka could not have expected that they would help, after all, they were not allowed near the well. Her willingness to bring water to the camels was therefore not a sign of being taken advantage of, but rather of her readiness to do what was necessary in order to help a group of strangers.

From here, Rav Samet proceeds to explain why the well was so important to each of these stories. Amongst the things that a well symbolizes in Tanach is a woman (see for example Mishlei 5:15-19 and Shir HaShirim 4:12, and 4:15). Rav Samet suggests that all three of these stories foreshadow the relationship between the couple. In the case of Moshe and Tzippora, Moshe’s actions at the well demonstrate his deeply held sense of justice and his automatic instinct to help the weak, a characteristic that he already displayed when killing the Egyptian who was mistreating a Jewish slave. He is not looking for a “shidduch” and in fact the marriage to Tzippora is secondary to the story. This foreshadows their relationship, where Tzippora was forever secondary to Moshe’s mission of leading Am Yisrael to the point that they eventually are estranged.

Yaakov’s relationship with Rachayl is the main focus of one of Rav Samet’s essays but is not ours, so we will also mention it only briefly. Yaakov removes the rock from the well unaided, even though it is generally a multi-person task. This, says Rav Samet, symbolizes the multiple difficulties (Lavan’s duplicity, Rachayl’s barrenness and her death in childbirth), which arise in Yaakov and Rachayl’s life together and how they overcome them. Sadly, as is demonstrated by the fact that the rock is returned to the top of the well, their joint efforts are only successful for a short period and their life together is cut short by Rachayl’s pre-mature death.

In our Parsha, we are tempted to stop considering the relationship between Rivka and Yitzhak with the demonstration of Chessed by Rivka at the well. But Rav Samet points out a far more penetrating foreshadowing. As we have already pointed out, Yitzhak is very passive in the entire quest for a wife. It is Avraham who dispatches Eliezer, it is Eliezer who develops the test for a wife and sees it through. Most strikingly, it is Rivka who both literally and figuratively does all the heavy lifting. The only activity that we find on Yitzhak’s part (and only in the Midrash!) is his tefilla at B’ear L’achai Roi. This becomes the paradigm of their relationship. Throughout Parshat Toldot Rivka is the active partner in their relationship while Yitzhak is passive. It is Rivka who pushes Yitzhak to help her have a child. It is Rivka who takes charge and makes sure that Yaakov gets his father’s Brachot. And it is Rivka who makes sure to have Yaakov sent to her family to find a wife.

But that is only half the story. One other thing happens at B’ear L’achai Roi. It is at B’ear L’achai Roi that Rivka first sees Yitzhak and is overwhelmed by his saintliness, so much so that she quickly dismounts and covers her face in awe and embarrassment. This sense of being overwhelmed by Yitzhak also becomes part of their relationship, and not necessarily in a healthy way as the Netziv (24:63-64) explains. Unlike the other Matriarchs, Rivka is never able to talk with Yitzhak openly or critically due to her sense of awe at his saintliness. As a result many things that should have been said are left unsaid and we know the result. These two almost contradictory elements of Yitzhak and Rivka’s relationship, Rivka’s dominance in running the household on the one hand and her diffidence and lack of willingness to confront Yitzhak on the other, are foreshadowed at the wells of Haran and B’ear L’achai Roi.

The dynamic of this relationship sets the stage for Parshat Toldot, and for the entire future of Am Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom


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