From this week’s Torah portion, Toldot:
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.
But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.
He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehovot, saying “Now at last the Lord has granted us ample space to increase in the land.” (Genesis 26:18-22)
Isaac, who for so much of Genesis exists largely in the shadow of his father, Abraham, finally comes into his own in this week’s Torah portion. Witness his re-digging of his father’s wells (which Abraham had dug in Genesis 21:25-30). The text makes a point of telling us that Isaac assigns them the same names his father had given them. But when the time comes for Isaac to establish his own wells, the text pointedly tells us that he names them himself.
Peter Pitzele, in his book “Our Father’s Wells, points to the mythic power of Isaac’s act; it is only after Isaac re-digs his father’s wells is he is finally able to create a legacy of his own:
This enterprise of redigging his father’s wells is the sum total of the work of Isaac’s maturity; yet there is something important enough in it to earn him the place as the second patriarch. In his sonship some myth is being constructed that hallows and sanctifies his labor. (p. 149)
Wells and water, of course, are richly symbolic images; in many spiritual traditions the act of digging wells represents the active inner search for the divine. In this regard, they might be viewed as internal rather than (the more customary) external spiritual metaphors. According to Rabbi Art Green:
Let us think of the journey to God as a journey inward, where the goal is an ultimately deep level within the self rather than the top of the mountain or a ride in the clouds. The Torah tells us that our earliest ancestors were diggers of wells. Let us try to reach for the understanding that flowed as water from the depths of Abraham’s well, rather, for the moment than the one that came down in stone from the top of Moses’ mountain. This journey inward would be one that peels off layer after layer of externals, striving ever for the inward truth, rather than one that consists of climbing rung after rung, reaching ever and ever higher. Spiritual growth, in this metaphor, is a matter of uncovering new depths rather than attaining new heights. Perhaps we could even try to think of Torah itself as having been given at the deepest level of inner encounter, rather than from the top of the highest mountain, the mountain serving as a vertical metaphor for an inward event. (From “Seek My Face, Speak my Name,” p. 12)
Post Script: These verses also impart an undeniable lesson about the difficult, often painful work of conflict resolution. Note that Isaac when Isaac is faced with conflict over the digging of one well, he refuses to”dig in” – he moves on repeatedly to another site until he finds a well that gives his servants and the herdsmen of Gerar “ample space in the land.”
In other words, when one attempt at a solution does not succeed, we must ever be open to alternative and creative approaches. When faced with conflict, we must never cease in our efforts to seek out new places to “dig our wells.”