Waters of Contention
If you know any of the old Israeli dances, you probably know this one: Ushavtem mayim b’sasson, mi-ma’ayani hayeshua…mayim mayim mayim mayim,,,”
The lyrics are from Isaiah chapter 12: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
In fact, the dance was created in 1937 for a festival to celebrate the discovery of water in the Israeli desert after a seven-year search.
Drawing water from wells features prominently yin this week’s parsha of Toldot. The first and last parts of today’s parsha are well known: first we hear of the birth and early years of Jacob and Esau, and how they struggled even in the womb, and the latter part is about Rebecca’s scheming to be sure Jacob gets his father’s special blessing by masquerading Jacob as Esau. But its in the middle part of Toldot (in Genesis 26) that we encounter an adult Isaac. We read how he relocates to Gerar, how he farms the land (the only one of the Patriarchs to do so), and how he digs wells.
We really don't know much about Issac. He repeats his father Abraham's life, including the difficulty of having children, of then having children who are at odds with each another, then a famine that almost drives him to Egypt, and of course the ever-popular pretending his wife is his sister to avoid the wrath of a powerful ruler.
In fact, the one activity of Isaac’s life on which the Torah elaborates is this well-digging. We are told how Isaac reopens the wells originally dug by Abraham, and then we are given a detailed account of these seven wells , including the names he gave them, and his struggle to retain control over them.
Here’s the actual story: “And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth….
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them.
But when Isaac’s servants, digging in the wadi, found there a well of spring water,
the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek, because they contended with him.
And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah.
He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called it Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last the LORD has granted us ample space to increase in the land.”
From there he went up to Beer-sheba.
That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!”
He named it Shevah; therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day.”
The Slonimer rebbe points out a small but meaningful detail regarding this well episode.He notices that Isaac names the seventh well Shevah and the city Beersheva. But in parshat Vayeira we were told that Abraham had already named the spot “Beersheva.” The work Abraham did was now undone by others. So there was something crucial about Isaac’s redigging of the wells. What was it?
The Italian medieval commentator Sforno says Abraham dug three wells, Isaac came and redug those three wells and then dug three more – the ones we hear about today—Esek, Sitna, and Rechovot, for six, and then at the naming of the city he dug a seventh well. So, in essence, Isaac had to re-dig his father’s wells, but he had to add something as well. His father dug three wells, which he had to maintain, and he had to add three wells of his own, and the seventh well represents a completion of the move from child of Abraham to full adult himself, from shadow of daddy to well-builder of his own.
Our role as re-diggers of the wells our ancestors originally dug for us is what liberal Judaism is all about. We find old wells filled with dirt and gravel, and we re-open them with our interpretations and our new passion. And by re-opening them we once again bring forth waters of joy.
So…”With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Not so fast.
I cannot tie up this dvar Torah about ancient wells and the waters of salvation without talking about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access pipeline. If our Torah is about anything relevant, then this morning’s portion screams to us about the wells that someone’s ancestors dug and that someone else came around and filled up, and that are wells of conflict.
Notice the names of Isaac’s wells: Esek, contention, and sitna, emnity.
On a North Dakota reservation, contention and enmity wrestle to the ground over water. The ancient and historic water supply of an indigenous people.
And the number seven, as in our parsha, features again. Seven wells in our parsha. Seven Councils Camp in North Dakota, the first time all seven bands of the Lakota people have gathered in one place in more than a century.
An ancient people struggling to gain control over its own wells. Marshalling the law that is supposed to respect and protect them. The routing of a 12- to 30-inch crude oil pipeline in close proximity to and upstream of the Reservation is of serious concern. When establishing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's permanent homeland, the U.S. government promised waters of sufficient quantity and quality to serve the purposes of the Reservation. A spill would seriously compromise the waters that the Tribe and individual tribal members rely upon for drinking and other purposes.
But Standing Rock is not only about the potential pollution of their water source in the event of a spill —it is also about the disturbance of their sacred sites. Imagine for a horrible moment if the Canadian government chose to bulldoze through Holy Blossom or Pardes Shalom to reach a pipeline source.
This cocktail of environmental disregard mixed with racism could have been our story too, in todays parsha. But we won, we dug the wells and the Philistines retreated and it all ended up fine. We don’t know how Standing Rock will end.
An ancient people struggling to gain control over its own wells. We know how they feel.
On September 3rd, 2016 Bravebull Allard, LaDonna wrote: “If we allow an oil company to dig through and destroy our histories, our ancestors, our hearts and souls as a people, is that not genocide?”
An ancient people struggling to gain control over its own wells. We know how they feel. “I call us the weebee people,” says Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “We be here when they came, we be here when they gone.”
No one understands that connection to land better than us Jews. We be here when they came, we be here when they gone is a motto we feel in our ancestral bones too. Isaac understood that the only way to be here when they be gone is to dig wells and to plant roots and to name cities and to control your own historic destiny. I pray that the wells of contention and enmity be closed up, and with joy, we all be able to draw water from the wells of salvation.