Friday, November 17, 2023

The Magic of The Twice Dug Well


Excavations. Tell Jemmeh, (Gerar). Solomonic level. Excavated section of the mound

 Where was Gerar located? Determining the location of biblical cities requires careful evaluation of archeological, historical, and literary evidence. It is both an art and a science, and because of that, opens the door for multiple opinions.


Several archaeological sites, or “tels,” have been identified as Gerar. Eliezer Oren of Ben Gurion University has argued that Tel Haror, located between Ofakim and Netivot, is Gerar. It is a large city, and the location also seems to correspond to an ambiguous description given by the Church Father Eusebius in the 4th century.


Many other archeologists and Bible scholars take a different view. In the 1920s W. J. Phythian-Adams and Flinders Petrie identified the excavations at Tel Jemmeh with Gerar. They did so because a Byzantine village, Umm Gerar, (essentially the same name,) was nearby.


Yehuda and Yoel Elitzur, (father and son Bible scholars,) note that the biblical record corresponds with this identification. Gerar is described in the Tanakh as being close to Gaza, which is true of Tel Jemmeh but not of Tel Haror. Tel Jemmeh also is a place of abundant well water, which is characteristic of cities closer to the coast. A place like this is somewhere that one would naturally go to during a famine. Tel Jemmeh best fits the biblical description of Gerar.


Gerar’s location was just a matter of academic interest until a month and a half ago; but it is now part of the geography of tragedy. The area of Tel Jemmeh is about a mile from Re’im, where the Nova Festival took place and over 350 were murdered. It is also very close to many of the Kibbutzim that were destroyed during the horrific, depraved Hamas massacre. Gerar is near to all of these sites of tragedy; and after October 7th, this text speaks to us with a different voice.


Genesis 26 begins with Rebecca and Isaac leaving home in a famine in search of food. They arrive in Gerar, on their way down to Egypt; but God tells them to stay there and not leave the Land of Israel.


In Gerar, they become extremely successful, to the point that the local people are jealous. The Philistines stop up all of the wells in Gerar that Abraham had dug; Abimelech the local king tells Isaac: “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.”


And so Isaac moves into the Valley of Gerar, and there “Isaac dug again the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father, (for the Philistines had stopped them up after the death of Abraham.) He called them by the names which his father had called them.” Isaac digs two more wells, but the Philistines claim them as well; finally, after digging a third well, the Philistines leave him alone. Isaac continues on to Beersheba; finally, after all this, Abimelech comes to offer Isaac a treaty.


Every commentary approaches this text with one question in mind: What relevance do these wells have? The purpose of the biblical record is to inspire and enlighten future generations. Who once owned which well under which name thousands of years ago seems to be an unimportant detail, a narrative without any abiding purpose.


Because of this question, the Ramban offers a mystical interpretation that sees this text as a prophecy for the future. A similar allegorical approach is taken up by many later commentators, who offer interpretations that see the wells as symbolizing the search for spirituality and inner faith.


Other commentaries see this narrative as a reflection of contemporary struggles. Saadia Gaon, who was a fierce opponent of the Karaites who had rejected the rabbinic tradition, saw in Isaac's decision to give the wells the same names as his father a comment on the importance of preserving the traditions and customs of previous generations.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who lived at a time when Jews were fighting for acceptance and equal rights, saw in the Philistines' jealousy of Isaac's success a reflection of his own time; that just like Isaac, even after reentering society, Jews would remain the subject of harassment and envy. He explains that even after receiving equal rights, the struggle was not complete. Jews would need to aspire to an honored place in society, and work to become a true light unto the nations, cherished for their teachings and values.


At its core, this narrative is about Isaac’s response to discrimination; however, the meaning of the text is unclear. Don Isaac Abrabanel and the Ramban have contrary views regarding what Isaac actually did. The Ramban says that Isaac left Gerar and traveled far away, where he was no longer subject to Abimelech and the people of Gerar. The wells Isaac restores are not the ones in Gerar; rather they are a second set of wells, found elsewhere, and not a matter of dispute. This reading has Isaac acting submissively, avoiding conflict with the people of Gerar. (Abrabanel notes that this is why the Ramban sees no real purpose to this text. By the Ramban’s reading, Isaac does nothing.) But the Ramban’s reading is a forced, contorted explanation, because it assumes that the text is talking about two different sets of wells that were closed up by the Philistines; and that is divorced from the simple reading of the text.


Don Isaac Abrabanel, as mentioned, offers a very different perspective. While Isaac does move from Gerar, he does so for a logistical reason; the land cannot accommodate his livestock and the livestock of others. But Isaac remained very close by, despite the Philistines’ demands that he leave. Abrabanel then explains that “Isaac lived there against their desires, and not only that, he dug again the wells that they had closed. And to further assert his rights, he gave the wells the exact same names his father had.”


Abrabanel reads this text as a story of defiance. This is even more remarkable because until this point, Isaac's life had been guided by others: he was nearly sacrificed by his father, had his wife chosen by his father's servant, and he settled in Gerar because God told him to. But when the chips are down, Isaac rises to the occasion and defies Abimelech. Even Isaac will stand up for his father's legacy.


Abrabanel’s explanation of the wells is exactly what we need to read right now. Defiance isn’t only found in confrontation; it is found in resilience too. Yes, many times during Jewish history we have had to retreat; many times Jews looked like the Ramban’s description of Isaac, a man who avoids conflict with a more powerful adversary. But the overarching theme of Jewish history is that Jews will find a way to make a comeback, even after failures, retreats, and catastrophes. No matter how disappointing a defeat may be, the Jews will not give up, and will return to dig the wells again and again.


A people that knows how to rebuild what is destroyed is here to stay. And that is the magic of the twice-dug well.


This magic can be found all over Israel. Sivan Rahav Meir shared a fascinating WhatsApp message written by Nogah Ashkenazi, a German convert to Judaism. Nogah wrote that when the war started, she planned on immediately returning to her family in Germany; they were urging her to come back as well. But then Nogah changed her mind. She was part of a local WhatsApp group; and there she read her neighbors’ messages to each other. And that changed her mind.


She wrote a message to her WhatsApp group to explain:


...My first thought was to leave everything and fly to Germany to my parents with the children. My family was already preparing for our arrival.


But when I opened this group on Monday and saw all the messages here, and saw all the strong women, and how you put all your efforts to help on all fronts with whatever is needed, I was so impressed. I was amazed to see the strength of our nation. And it just kept getting even more and more impressive. This is what changed my mind.


I am not going to run away, not going to leave, because I too am very much a part of all of this. I am Jewish, and this is what I chose; and this is the vow I made in front of the rabbis during conversion, and more importantly, the vow I made in front of God. Germany is no longer my home; I am not German, I am Jewish, and this is my place.


And I'm not leaving. On the contrary, I have become even more Jewish in my identity.


So I want to thank each of you for supporting me. My family in Germany doesn't understand my choice, and I can't blame them. You don't know what it is to be part of the Jewish people if you haven't lived it with every cell in your body….


This is a powerful message, a declaration of the Jewish spirit. Even though Nogah is new to the Jewish people, she speaks with Isaac’s voice. It is a voice of defiance, which refuses to accept destruction and persecution.


Today, as we fight another conflict near Gerar, Isaac’s example will guide us. We will find strength in each other, comfort in our dreams, and hope in our history. 


And no matter what, we will restore, we will rebuild, we will return.

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