Chizkuni (13th Century, Europe)
כשמות אשר קרא להן אביו, “as had been their names when his father had named them.” He wished to draw attention to the fact that the success of these wells had been and continued to be due to the merit of his father. In order to prove that this was so, when he left the vicinity of Avimelech’s capital and settled where Avraham had lived for a while and demonstrated that the success depended not on the quality of the earth and the skill of its farmers, but on the goodwill enjoyed by them in the heavenly spheres.
Like Water, Like Torah
For it was taught: 'And they went three days in the wilderness and found no water,15 upon which those who expound verses metaphorically16 said: water means nothing but Torah,17 as it says: Ho, everyone that thirsteth come ye for water.18 It thus means that as they went three days without Torah they immediately became exhausted. The prophets among them thereupon rose and enacted that they should publicly read the law on Sabbath, make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, make a break again on Tuesday and Wednesday, read again on Thursday and then make a break on Friday so that they should not be kept for three days without Torah.'19 BT, Baba Kamma, 82A
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, "Digging Our Parents' Wells"
What can we learn from the image of a well that has been intentionally filled with earth so that it no longer functions as a well? If water is life-giving, then a stopped-up well is the opposite. Why, then, did the Philistines, as we read in this week's parashah, Tol'dot, stop up the wells that had been dug in the days of Abraham and tell Isaac to leave the region? (Genesis 26:15) Why were they ready to make their own land uninhabitable? It is not a logical action and seems contrary to normal human behavior.
Nehama Leibowitz suggests that there must be more to the matter than what is literally stated, that this action of the Philistines must be understood to imply something symbolic. She cites Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg in HaKetav Vehakabbalah, who suggests that the wells were symbols from the beginning and that each time Abraham dug a well, he gave it a name that taught a lesson about the true nature of God. Each well served as a means of bringing idolaters under the wings of the Divine Presence. After Abraham's death, the local folk reverted back to their idolatry and stopped up the wells in order to erase his teachings from their memory. When Isaac returns to dig anew the same wells, he gives them the same names that his father did "in order to restore the crown of the true faith to its former glory."
Isaac's digging the same wells that his father dug shows us how he takes his place in Tol'dot, the family story that becomes our national history. He understands the need to reclaim his father's traditions and to ensure their survival. It is an act of maturity that he crowns with further honoring his father's memory giving the wells the "same names that his father had given them." (Genesis 26:18) Only then did Isaac's servants find "there a well of spring water" (Genesis 26:19). The term used in the text is mayim chayim - "living water," the waters of life.
As we mature, we identify with Isaac's actions: We learn to understand and to seek to reclaim the traditions handed down to us by our parents and, when possible, to honor their work and their wisdom. The lessons we learn from the generations that preceded us are as life-giving as is a well of living water.
Like Water, Like Torah
Words of Torah are compared to water: “Everyone that thirsts come to the water” (Isaiah. 55:1). As water reaches from one end of the world to the other, so Torah reaches from one end of the world to the other. As water gives life to the world, so Torah gives life to the world. As water is given without cost to the world, so is Torah given without cost to the world. As water is given from heaven, so Torah is given from heaven. As water is given with thunder, so was Torah given to the accompaniment of thunder (at Sinai). As water restores a person's spirit, so Torah restores a person’s spirit. As water cleanses a person from uncleanness, so Torah cleanses an unclean person from his uncleanness. As water comes down in many drops and becomes a mighty river, so Torah; today a person learns two Halakhot, tomorrow two more, and so on, until he becomes like a bubbling brook. As water leaves a high place and flows to a low place, so Torah leaves him whose opinion of himself is high and cleaves to him whose spirit is lowly. As water is not kept in vessels of silver or gold, but only in the The Rabbinical Assembly Talmud Torah: Mitzvah, Mission and Meaning Page 3 cheapest of vessels, so Torah abides only in one who regards himself as lowly as an earthenware vessel. As when thirsty, a grown man is not ashamed to say to a child, "Let me have a drink of water," so in studying Torah a grown man who is unlearned should not be ashamed to say to a child, "Teach me a chapter or a verse or a word," or even "Teach me a single letter." As with water, if one does not know how to swim in it, he will end by drowning, so with words of Torah: if one does not know how to swim in them and teach them, he will drown in the end.
BT. Eruvin 54a
Rabbi Adam Lavitt, "Digging Wells for Generations"
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.