This week's Torah portion is full of well-known biblical stories that center around food. Esau famously gives away his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, in exchange for some red-lentil stew (Genesis 25:29-34). A famine in the land drives Isaac and Rebecca to leave their home and go to Gerar (Genesis 26:1-5). Rebecca encourages Jacob to trick his blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing reserved for Esau, and he does so by preparing his father a favored dish (Genesis 27:6-10). The ensuing blessing promises abundance of new grain and the fat of the earth.
Yet at the heart of this portion is a lesser-known story centered not around food but around water. After Isaac and Rebecca flee the famine, they settle for a time in Gerar, the province of Abimelech, a Philistine king. There they acquire great wealth. The text tells us that the Philistines were jealous of Isaac's riches, and that they filled in the wells that Isaac's father's servants had dug years before. So Isaac moves on and redigs more of his father's wells that had been stopped up by the Philistines. In addition to these older wells, Isaac's servants find a well of living water, a "be'er mayyim hayyim." A quarrel over water rights again ensues, with the Philistines contending that the newly found water belongs to them.
We live in a world where quarrels over water are very real, and becoming more and more common. The United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight Against Desertification reports:
Today, water scarcity affects between 1-2 billion people, most of them in the drylands. Under [climate change], nearly half of the world's population in 2030 will be living in areas of high water stress. In some arid and semi-arid areas, it will displace up to between 24 million and 700 million people. (See here.)
Take a moment and notice your reaction to reading the above quote. If you are like me, you might feel fear or anger, and then a quiet sense of being overwhelmed, followed by surrender. The frightening facts of a changing global ecology have this effect on us. We get scared and we shut down. And while these reactions are totally understandable and even natural, they are not going to serve us as we try to physically and spiritually adapt to a changing world. So we turn back to our Torah portion. What might we learn from the story of Isaac and the Philistines to help us in our own time of water scarcity and climate change?
The Hebrew word for well, be'er (spelled "bet," "aleph," "resh") appears 10 times in this Torah portion. Drawing from a teaching of the Hasidic master the Me'or Eynayim (d. 1797), my teacher Rabbi Arthur Green points out that if we remove the middle letter aleph, we are left with bor, the Hebrew word for cistern. A cistern is a manmade holding place for water. Unlike the well of living waters that Isaac finds in Wadi Gerar, a cistern does not regenerate naturally: It merely holds what is put into it.
This is a metaphor for ourselves. In this time of ecological turbulence, it is easy to become a bor, simply a holding place for information, a pool of fear or indifference in the face of frightening facts. We must resist this temptation. Alephis the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it stands for the creative and lifegiving energy that pervades the world. When we place the middle letter alephback into the word, we again get be'er -- a well of living water. When we make of ourselves a be'er in the face of communal crisis, we open ourselves to springs of wisdom we did not know we had. We open ourselves to resiliency, compassion and creativity.
Commenting on Genesis 26:18, it which it says the Philistines closed up the wells after the death of Isaac's father, Abraham, the medieval commentator Rashi says that this language of closing the well actually refers to closing the heart.
The world of science and politics recognizes the threat of climate change and growing water scarcity, but we all know that without the political will to make lasting changes, none of the scientific or policy solutions will be successful. When we take a deep breath in the face of frightening facts, we open our heart and become a be'er, a well of living waters. Then we can bring to life the part of this Torah portion when Isaac and Abimelech make peace, and wells are dug without contention.
"From now on may you be blessed of the Lord!" says Abimelech to Isaac. "And he made for them a feast, and they ate and they drank," (Genesis 26:29-30).
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.