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“G-d formed from the earth every beast of the field and every bird of the sky and brought them to Adam to see what he would call each one; and whatever Adam called each living creature, that remained its name” (Genesis 2: 19). We see from here the importance of names. A person’s Hebrew name is not mere coincidence, but is has an influence over their character traits, and shows us the potential within that person. The Hebrew word for “name” is Shem, which is related to the word Sham meaning “there”. How much more important to understanding the character of a person is a name given in the Torah, where every word has many layers of hidden meaning.
Esav (Esau) is born at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. But his name appears to be a description of what he looked like as a baby, rather than a key to understanding his personality. “The first one emerged red, entirely like a hairy mantle; so they called him Esav” (ibid. 25; 25). Rashi explains that the word Esav is from the word Assui (made), because when Esav emerged from the womb he was covered in hair like an adult. This seems a strange reason for a name. All babies when they are born look like either aliens or Winston Churchill, yet very few are named E.T. or Winston.
Equally perplexing is the other name which Esav receives later in life, Edom (Red). This name is not a consequence of his ruddy appearance, but rather because he sold his birthright for a pot of red stew (ibid. 30). Why is the colour of Esav’s lunch the most appropriate description of who he really is?
The fact that Esav was born “fully made” gives us an insight into his attitude to the world. Adam and Eve were created after everything else was already formed, in order that they should enter into a “made” world, where they would not lack for anything. They had the potential to take the finished world, and elevate to a higher plane through their actions. However, through sinning, they plunged the world into imperfection, and forced their descendants to have to work to survive.
Similarly Esav was given everything when he was born. He was complete, and should have used that perfection as a building base to strive for even greater spiritual heights. To do this he needed to appreciate the world into which he was born, and recognise his debt of gratitude to G-d. However when he returns home exhausted, he tells Ya’akov that he doesn’t even want to know what he is eating “Pour into me now some of that red stuff”. He doesn't want to eat and enjoy the food, but just to have it poured into him. And the only thing he sees in the food is its colour.
Instead of perceiving the physical world as a tool to reach spiritual perfection, he thinks that this world is the totality of reality. He sees no use for the birthright, because he is finite, “I am going to die”. Therefore he is labelled with the derogatory name “Edom”, which not only means red, but is also related to Adam, the first man who also spurned the gifts that G-d had given him in this world.
Yitzchak (Isaac) was forty years old when he married Rivka (Rebecca). After twenty years Rivka becomes pregnant with twins. She receives a prophecy that the older son will be subservient to the younger. The eldest twin is born covered in hair, and he is called Esav (Esau) meaning fully made. The second son is clutching the heel of his brother and therefore he is called Ya'akov (Jacob) derived from Ekev, heel. Esav becomes a hunter, while Ya'akov remains a quiet tent dweller. Yitzchak loves Esav, whereas Rivka favours Ya'akov. Esav gives up his rights as firstborn to Ya'akov in exchange for lentil stew, thus showing contempt for his birthright.
In almost all of the events of his life, Yitzchak remains a passive actor, or else he is not in control of the situation. His birth and his name, were prophesied a year earlier; in his ‘binding’ on Mount Moriah, he lay passively as his father was about to sacrifice him. When it was time for him to get married his father arranged for his servant to find the right wife for him. Even when he comes to bless his sons at the end of his life, it is really his wife who is pulling all the strings. In fact the only action that Yitzchak himself does is the digging of the wells in this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 26: 19-22). Therefore it seems worthy of closer examination if we are to gain an insight into Yitzchak’s personality.
“Yitzchak dug anew the wells of water which they had dug in the days of Avraham his father and the Philistines had stopped up after Avraham’s death; and he called them by the same names that his father had called them. Yitzchak’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of fresh water. The herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled with Yitzchak’s herdsmen saying. “The water is ours,” so he called the name of that well Esek (involvement), because they involved themselves with him. Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that also; so he called its name Sitnah (quarrel). He relocated from there and dug another well; they did not quarrel over it, so he called its name Rechovot (width), and said, “For now G-d has granted us ample space, and we can be fruitful in the land.” He went from there to Beer-Sheva...”
Since the Torah seems to spend so much space on actions which seem so trivial, the commentators have understood that there must be deeper significance to these events. Ramban, based on the principle that the experiences of the patriarchs are precursors of events in Jewish history, explains that the three wells represent the three Temples, the two that were destroyed, and the third Temple that will be built in the Messianic era, and which will not be destroyed. The Temple is likened to a well of water, as Jeremiah says “because they have forsaken the L-rd, the well of living waters” (17: 13). The first Temple was destroyed because of involvement with idolatry and other forbidden things, the second was destroyed because of the quarrelling between the Jews, the baseless hatred that divided them. The Third Temple will be in a time of increased borders and fruitfulness, and is therefore implied in the well named Rechovot.
It seems strange, however, that after the first two wells were lost to the herdsmen of Gerar, Yitzchak persevered and dug another well, yet after the third well which was uncontested he abandoned the place, and relocates to Beer-Sheva. If these wells represent the three Temples should he not have remained at Rechovot for a greater length of time, just as the third Temple will be the final one? The Ba’al HaTurim explains the historical significance of these wells slightly differently. He says that Esek refers to the Babylonians, who involved themselves in military conquest against the Land of Israel, Sitna refers to Haman, who plotted evil against the Jewish nation. And Rechovot corresponds to the Greeks who forbade the Jews from going to the Mikva, thus preventing them from having children. Miraculously the Jews found ways of immersing themselves in Mikvas surreptitiously, and were able to be fruitful, hence “we can be fruitful in the land”.
Rav Tzaddok HaCohen explains that these two explanations, of the Ramban and the Ba’al HaTurim are two sides of the same coin. The first well refers to the First Temple period, when the threat to the nation was from Babylon, who were engaged in a war of conquest. They were not against the Jews any more than any other nation in the region, and were simply trying to extend their borders as far as possible. The second well represents the Second Temple period, which was categorised by the hatred of Jews best symbolised by Haman. Wars were directed against Jewish rights to independence, not with a desire to take control of the Land of Israel. The third well, which according to the Ba’al HaTurim represents the Greek conquest, represents the entire period of Jewish history from the time of the Greeks, through the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, to our present situation. The Greeks did not try to kill the Jews physically, or even deny them vestiges of self-rule. Their goal was to try and destroy the spirituality and religion of the Jews. This was the approach taken by the herdsmen of Gerar with the final well, watching as Yitzchak and his men dug it, and perhaps even offering assistance. However, Yitzchak realised that this situation was even more dangerous than the former two. When nations attempt to destroy the Jewish nation there is usually very little that we as Jews can do. We can only persevere and pray that things will get better. However when the nations try to welcome the Jews that can be even more dangerous. For Yitzchak the only option was to leave there, and return to Beer-Sheva, a city founded by his father and a bastion of the ideals that Avraham had brought into the world.
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