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Home » Toldot

Toldot: Do Jews Dig Wells?

Submitted by on December 4, 2005 – 2:54 amNo Comment | 2,569 views

The Thrill of Discovery

Did you know that our patriarchs were devoted well diggers? Imagine digging for hours or even days on end, with no visible success. You dig thirty meters and find only soil and rock. You wonder about your prospects. You wonder if your efforts are in vain. (1) 

Have your prospectors miscalculated?, Did you choose the wrong location? Should you persevere and dig deeper?

You decide to keep going and your determination is shortly rewarded. Imagine the thrill of discovering a new wellspring. Fresh water suddenly abounds and you know that the invested hours and days were purposeful. Your discovery has fulfilled them, your effort has crowned them with achievement.

Indeed, striking water is the purpose of well digging, Discovering wellsprings is why  we dig wells in the first place. In fact, it is the reason well digging was such a favorite pastime of our ancestors.

Our Patriarchs’ experiences serve as signposts for ourselves, their descendants. Signposts are meant to direct us. What direction does their well digging offer?

Digging for Life’s Purpose

A friend recently told me that his nine-year old son asked him the following question, “I go to school so that I can earn a diploma. I need a diploma so that I can get a job and I need a job so that I can live, but why do I need to live?”

The answer is that we live in order to dig wells.

The little boy aptly described life as the experience of digging a well. From infancy to childhood, from adolescence to maturity. From school to work, from family building to retirement. Its one long race. A race in which we dig, search and explore until we discover the purpose of life.

Life can only have meaning if it has a purpose, and the only purpose that can endow life with meaning is one that is greater than life itself. One that permits us to reach beyond ourselves and contribute to something of greater, maybe even cosmic, significance.

Our patriarchs dug wells to discover water. We, too, live to dig for water. do jews dig wells - innerstreamWe live to discover and uncap the wellsprings of Torah and G-dliness that are concealed by the mundane activities of daily life.

The Divine Agenda

In every mundane activity there is a G-dly purpose. Our task is to discover it. We work to earn a living, but why do we earn a living? So that we can eat? Of course not! That kind of logic is circular. The purpose of earning money is to fulfill the Mitzvah of charity.

We eat so that we can be nourished and live, but why do we need to live? So that we can eat and be nourished? Of course not! That isalso circular logic. We live so that we can serve G-d. Furthermore, the act of eating also serves G-d when we ensure that the food is kosher and that the proper blessings are recited before and after eating.

We have a car so that we can drive, but how does driving serve G-d? When we stop to offer a lift to a pedestrian, we fulfill the Mitzvah of loving our fellow and serve a purpose greater than ourselves.

The search for a G-dly purpose can be applied to every endeavor in life. We must never be content with living on the surface. We must always seek something bolder and greater. We must reach for the depths and uncover the wellsprings of meaning and G-dly purpose. (2)

Uncapping Plugged Wells

In addition to digging his own wells, Isaac reopened the wells that his father dug, but had been plugged by the Philistines after Abraham’s death.

There are times when we, too, discover a well, but later allow mundane influences to plug it. We endeavor to engage in a particular activity for its G-dly purpose and then revert to a surface, facile, approach to that particular endeavor.

This is especially true in the mornings. We rise in the early morning and devote our first waking hours to G-d. We engage in prayer, meditate upon G-d and fan the flames of our love. Gripped by the passion of sacred devotion, we perceive the divine spark in every endeavor and resolve to uncover the wellsprings of life, to live for a G-dly purpose.

As the prayer unwinds, we descend from the heights of celestial devotion and allow the tones of passion to slowly fade. At first, the music lives on in our memory and we recall the thrill of its promise, but as we leave the sanctuary, our spiritual buoyancy disappears. The opened wellsprings become plugged by the materialism of life.

Isaac’s Discipline

This is where we take direction from Isaac’s signpost. Abraham served G-d out of love and he uncapped many wellsprings of devotion, but the love ran its course and, upon his passing, the Philistines were able to plug his wells. Isaac, who served G-d with humble discipline  succeeded where his father failed. He reopened his father’s wells.

Love for G-d is limited by its own size, it carries us only as far it can, but when we confront something that we love more than we love G-d, we need something stronger to catapult us further.

Enter Isaac and his abnegation of self. His strict code of obedience shifted his focus from himself onto G-d. His devotion, born out of obedience, was not measured by a yardstick of love. It was greater than love and could not be compromised by the allure of the material.

When we leave the sanctuary and the call of Abraham’s love, we must uncap Isaac’s obedience and keep our wellsprings flowing. The passion of prayer uncaps the morning’s wellsprings, and for that we thank Abraham. Humble discipline keeps temptation at bay and ensures the water’s flow. For that we thank our Patriarch Isaac. (3)


This essay is based upon a Chassidic discourse presented by the Sfas Emes (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur 1847–1905) in the year 5633.

  1. Genesis 26: 15-22.
  2. See Nachmanidies’ commentary, ibid., that the three wells dug by Isaac foretold the three Jewish Temples In Jerusalem. The first two that were previously built and destroyed and the third one that we believe will stand eternally in the messianic era. (This is why the first two wells were contested by the Philistines and the third one was not.)
    The purpose of digging the wells was to reveal the G-dly purpose in life and since this G-dly purpose will be revealed, fulfilled and fully manifest in the Messianic era, Isaac stopped digging after he discovered the third well. (Nachmanides, R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1270)
  3. Lest we, G-d forbid, denigrate Abraham as a failure, we hasten to remind the reader that Abraham is the one who endowed Isaac with the ability to discover G-d on earth.  Abraham’s primary mission in life was to teach the principles of monotheism. Abraham is credited with introducing the name of G-d into the common lexicon and making G-d a fixed presence in our world. (See Rashi’s (Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105) commentary to Genesis 24 :7).
    This is the deeper meaning of the words, “Abraham begot Isaac.” (Genesis 25: 19) Abraham transmitted to Isaac the ability to discover G-d’s presence within the world and reveal it. Isaac, who perfected his father’s work, built upon the abilities his father had imparted to him. For more detail, see Likutei Sichos, vol. I, p. 47 (R. Menachem M. Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, 1902-1994).
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