Genesis 26:17-18, from the Torah reading for the past week:
“Yitzchak (Isaac) went from there and encamped in Nachal Gerar and lived there. And Yitzchak went back and dug all the wells of water that they had dug in the days of Avraham his father, and the Philistines had stopped them up after Avraham’s death, and he called them names just like the names that his father had called them.”
A nachal or wadi is a river bed that flows in the rainy season and is dry in the summer. In the verses that follow in Genesis 26, Yitzchak’s people don’t just re-dig old wells but also dig new ones, and they quarrel about them with the Philistines. Quarreling is probably not just verbal. Yitzchak names two wells after the quarrelling itself – “Struggle” and “Accusation”. Then he moves a bit away and digs a well and there is no quarrel, so he names that one something like “Breadths”, “for the Divine has given us enough space for us to be fruitful in the land.” Soon after the Philistine king, along with one advisor and his military chief, approaches Yitzchak and he is surprised, believing they hate him. Instead they say they have seen that the Divine has blessed Yitzchak. So they propose a treaty, and each sides swears to it. Another well is found, and Yitzchak names it after the treaty-making.
1. This whole episode takes place in the area from the Gaza Strip to Be’er-Sheva (Beersheba). In biblical times, this is a border region for the Israelites and the Philistines. Part of the scenes take place in what today is a part of Israel called Otef ‘Aza or the “Gaza Envelope”, the communities just outside the Gaza Strip which were attacked savagely by Hamas on October 7.
2. Rabbi Matt Berkowitz of The Schechter Institutes in Israel wrote last week about Zionism something like this: Through centuries of exile Jews kept connected with the places of their ancestors in the Land of Israel and the names of those places. When they returned, they reclaimed the old wells, came to live in the places and restore their ancient names.
3. Palestinians have the same dream about the villages the lost in 1948. They say that Israel has filled in the wells, erased the ancestral names of the villages they abandoned or were forced out of in the war of 1947-1949, even when those towns were settled with new residents. That’s true in many places, though not all. It’s also even more complicated than that. Arabic place names are often themselves versions of Hebrew names from the Bible. Many places in Israel have names in both languages. Some sites have ancient names or labels, Hebrew or Arabic or given by Christians, but the sites are near yet not quite exactly right on the biblical spots.
In Israel, bus and train and destination signs within Israel are in Hebrew, Arabic, and English all at once, coexistence encoded in multiple names. Still, so much of the conflict itself is embodies in names. The war of 1947-49 Israelis call Milchemet Hashichrur, the War of Liberation, and Palestinians call it the Nakba, the Catastrophe. However you assign the responsibilities leading up to it, it is clearly both.
4. The Torah talks of digging into the ground, in search of water. I shudder over and over as I read those words this year. In Washington last Tuesday Rachel Goldberg, the mother of hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin, reminded us about 240 people whose lives are literally underground. #BringThemHomeNow. So much of the Gaza war is about tunnels underground.
And so much of conflict in Israel-Palestine and throughout the Middle East is about access to water.
5. As I listened to all the speeches about anti-Semitism in Washington last week, and all the historical events they referenced, I realized something about Yitzchak and the naming of the wells in Genesis that I had never paid attention to before. Some of the wells Yitzchak calls by the names his father gave. Some Yitzchak names in relation to the conflicts of his own day, or the respite from conflict, or gloriously at the end the making of a treaty.
Not all the names are the same names Avraham had given. Yitzchak carries those names, but chooses when to use them and when to name in relation to the dynamics of his day – with his current enemies, or with his current frosty-but-nonviolent neighbors, or with his current treaty-partners.
We Jews often talk about anti-Semitism today as though every act and every manifestation is the same as what happened in Shoah or the European pogroms or the Bible. It all has the same name, the name my own generation inherited from our parents and our ancestors before that. (Though those are not actually all the same, biblical and Christian and modern anti-Jewish hate.)
But we also have to know when to name things in our own way, in the context of now.
Some anti-Semitism is just like before, and some is new. Some of the dynamics are another iteration of the same history – but some of the dynamics Jews have to be able to name in relation to the people here with us now. Intertwined or nearby, in the Land of Israel or other lands. A struggle is different from an accusation; neither is good but they are not identical. Not-fighting -- giving each other space to breathe or even prosper -- is not the same as treaty-making.
To say that it’s all the same anti-Semitism over and over can trap us, prevent us from finding reconciliations, and at worst become a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time, the unique new “struggles” and “accusations” against Jews today are frightening in their own way, and against those we Jews have much less experience to lean on, perhaps.
The chapter with the wells is the only chapter that centers Yitzchak and Rivka themselves, their own life and their own generation. It is sandwiched between two much more well-known stories in which their lives are subordinated to a conflict within the next generation, their sons Yaakov and Esav (Jacob and Esau). Even Yitzchak and the Philistines can’t help but notice in their interactions all kinds of echoes of Avraham’s and Sarah’s own interactions with the Philistines of their times.
Still Yitzchak and Rivka are trying in some way to live in their own generation. To navigate the conflicts of their region in their prime, to figure out what’s just like before and to make room for their own language about what’s happening.
So too for me, in my fifties. I live so much of my Jewish life with the people of my parents’ generation, who can remember when there had not been an Israel and who can remember 1967 and 1973 when Israel’s very survival was threatened by war. My own generation takes Israel for granted, and shared in the struggles to liberate the Jews of the U.S.S.R. and then Ethiopia after that. After me comes a generation who know only a strong Israel and a Jewish people with stature and power in the U.S.
How do we appropriately name the wells we find that were named in previous generations? When do we focus on those who tried to stop them up, and when on our accomplishment in finding life-giving water? How do we learn to give our own names, to the places and struggles our people has been in before?
6. To end on hope: The Torah can’t agree with itself on why Be’er-Sheva, the treaty city, has its name. Or which treaty it acknowledges, the one negotiated by Avraham the father or Yitzchak the son. Genesis 26 and Genesis 21 argue about it, give different accounts. Is the name because of the treaty-making oaths, or it is because of the gifts and meals that celebrated the treaty?
What a privilege it would be to have such a thing to argue about, to have too many stories of peace.