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Vayeitzei 5778-2017

“Three Wells ”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves Beer Sheba to escape the wrath of Esau and travels to Haran to be with his uncle, Laban.

As he leaves the Holy Land, Jacob has a powerful spiritual experience in which he dreams of angels climbing up and down a ladder that leads to heaven.

Describing Jacob’s arrival in Haran, the Torah, in Genesis 29:2 states, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ, כִּי מִן הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים, וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה עַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר , He looked and behold–-a well in the field! And behold! Three flocks of sheep lay there beside it, for from that well they would water the flocks, and the stone over the mouth of the well was large. Scripture explains that only when all the shepherds were assembled could they together roll the huge stone from off the mouth of the well and water the flocks.

There is much speculation regarding the purpose of the huge stone. The most plausible reasons for placing the stone on top of the well were to protect the water and to prevent people from falling into the well.

Others suggest that the huge stone was there for other, non-practical, reasons. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asserts that the Arameans were not men of good character. Since they did not trust one another, there was fear that if the well were left open to all, some shepherds would take more than their fair share. Since it was necessary for all the shepherds to be there in order to roll the stone off, the equitable distribution of the water was ensured.

Jacob is surprised to see that the local shepherds had gathered around the well and were not out in the field grazing the sheep, and caring for the owners’ flocks properly. While in conversation with the shepherds, Rachel arrives. So taken is Jacob with the young woman, that he singlehandedly lifts up the stone and waters her flocks.

Wells play an important role in several narratives in the Torah. There are, in fact, three similar accounts in the Torah that tell of travelers who come to a well to find a mate.

The first occurrence in the Torah is found in Genesis 24:11. Eliezer, Abraham’s Damascan servant, brings his master, Abraham’s camels outside of the city of Nachor, to the well of water, at evening, as the female water drawers come out. The second well story is found in our parasha, in Genesis 29:2. In the third case, found in Exodus 2:15-17, Moses has fled Egypt and comes to dwell in the land of Midian. He sits down by the בְּאֵר , a well. The High Priest of Midian has seven daughters who come to the well to draw water, fill the troughs and give drink to their father’s flocks. As Moses watches, the local shepherds chase the women away.

Although the three stories appear to be quite similar, there are significant differences. In fact, there are basic differences concerning the wells themselves.

In the city of Nachor, where Eliezer comes, the shepherdesses apparently go out together every day toward evening, to draw water. This was necessary for their protection from the boys who would frequently harass them. The well, in this case, is located outside the city. Except for the troublesome shepherds, the story focuses only on the women. The well here seems to be a communal well that is governed by communal laws. The water is open and free for anyone to take. The fact that the well is outside the city indicates that the location is secure from enemies and bad elements, and is even safe for girls who go out to draw water.

The well, mentioned in our parasha, serves only to water flocks and is not open to communal use. It is subject to use only during those hours when the shepherds come together. The men here play a significant role, for without them, there would be no access to the water.

The well that Jacob comes to is בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה , a well in the field. It is not near any inhabited areas, but farther away, closer to the pastures, and its use is limited only to flocks that belong to the members of the local community. The well seems to be owned or controlled by the local community whose shepherds dug it, and may not be used by anyone else. The source of the water does not appear to be an open stream, but rather a flow of underground water. The well itself needs to be protected, because of the scarcity of water.

At first glance, the well in the story of Moses in Midian seems to be similar to the well where Jacob meets Rachel. However, there is a significant difference. Both the wells of Eliezer and Jacob are in Mesopotamia, a land that is blessed by powerful rivers–the Tigris and the Euphrates, and abundant rain. The land of Midian is hot and arid, with poor soil. Its Bedouin residents are always fighting for bare subsistence, and only the strong survive. They fight over every inch of land and every drop of water. Although the daughters of Jethro arrive at the well long before the male shepherds, they are soon chased away. Only the presence of Moses, who fights off the shepherds, makes it possible for them to water their sheep.

Wells, in many cultures, are a positive symbol of abundance, good fortune and comradery. Wells are often seen as vehicles that ensure the future fate of the people of the community.

But every well is different. Depending on the environment they serve, wells elicit different reactions, often coinciding with the needs of the time and the location.

Judaism regards water as a holy commodity. In fact, Torah itself is often (Isaiah 55:1) compared to water. Thus, tradition reveres water, both literally and symbolically. It is at the well where matchmaking takes place, where courts of law meet and important decisions are rendered.

In a most profound way, the well may represent the actual destiny of the People of Israel.

May you be blessed.