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by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

At first glance, the passage in this week's Torah portion describing Isaac's well-digging experiences is extremely difficult to understand.



At first glance, the passage in this week's Torah portion describing Isaac's well-digging experiences is extremely difficult to understand. Sandwiched between the birth and development of Jacob and Esau at the beginning of the portion, and the episode of the highly significant blessings at the end of the portion, Isaac's wells would seem to have very little relevance and importance. Why should the Torah expend so much precious space on the ups and downs of Isaac's investments?

Furthermore, Isaac's behavior in this section is itself rather strange. He digs a well which brings forth a large supply of life-giving water, a tremendous commodity at the time. Subsequently, upon getting into a disagreement with the native shepherds over the water's ownership, Isaac relinquishes control over this small fortune without putting up much of a fight, and he gives the well a name - Esek. The process repeats itself, and he names the second well Sitnah. Finally he relocates and digs a third well over which there is no quarrel, and he names it Rechovot. Why did Isaac yield to his opponents after investing so much effort in the digging of the first two wells, and why did he bother to name them?

To understand this passage, explains Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, successor to his illustrious father as chief rabbi of 13th century Egyptian Jewry, we must first focus on what Isaac's purpose in life was and how he viewed himself. He was more than just a wealthy businessman who dug wells to support his vast flocks. His job was to cultivate and develop his own character traits so that he could live up to his immense potential, to become one of the forefathers of the Jewish people. His agenda went well beyond the profession with which he put money in the bank.

Although our forefathers were extremely successful in business, they were very careful not to allow their work to get in the way of their spiritual development. When the shepherds contested Isaac's rights to the wells, when the monitoring of his physical possessions began to impede upon his own growth, Isaac deemed his business to be an Esek - involvement, or a Sitnah - something preventing my spiritual growth (from the word Satan). He declared that these wells and my material possessions are detracting too much from my spiritual growth. I cannot involve myself with them any further. Isaac therefore abandoned them in search of a place where he would be able to focus on what was truly important. Indeed, the third well he dug went uncontested, so he called it Rechovot - spaciousness.

A man once came to see the Brisker Rav, a great Torah scholar of the early 20th century, and the Brisker Rav asked him what he did. The man responded by relating what business he was in. As if he had not heard the answer, the Brisker Rav repeated the question, and the man gave the same response. The scenario repeated itself a third time, and the confused man did not know what to answer. The Brisker Rav explained with a verse from the book of Jonah. When the sailors asked Jonah what was his work, Jonah responded, "I am a Jew, and Hashem, the G-d of the Heavens, do I fear." Jonah did not respond by telling them his profession. Whether he was a doctor, lawyer, or prophet, his job did not define who he was. He was an eved Hashem, servant of G-d. That is how a Jew should view himself, and that is the answer the Brisker Rav was looking for. A person's profession is simply the means by which he draws an income so that he can properly focus on his real purpose in life.


Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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