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Opening the Well of Interpretation

  • Opening the Well of Interpretation

    Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3
D'var Torah By: 

In Jewish tradition, wells give life by providing not only water, but also a meeting place for our ancestors to find their mates. In Vayeitzei, Jacob met his beloved Rachel at a well. Emboldened perhaps by love at first sight, he rolled away the heavy stone covering the mouth of the well to water Rachel's flock.

Creative interpretations of this encounter at the well abound. Perhaps it is self-evident that a well would serve as such a rich metaphor, so ripe for midrashic readings. Wells are characterized by depth; their contents give life. The well in our scene requires an act of strength to access its life-giving waters; it does not simply flow of its own accord.

The Rabbis of the midrash collection B'reishit Rabbah go on at great length about Jacob rolling the stone off the well, with three flocks of sheep nearby. Rabbi Hama ben Hanina alone offers six ways to understand the scene.

First, he compares this well to the well in the wilderness during the time of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the three prophets who are symbolized by the three flocks of sheep. This miraculous well traveled with the Israelites. The leaders opened it to water their tribes and families, and they put the stone back during their journeys.

It is worth noting that Rabbi Hanina retrojects the desert wandering into the Jacob story. This anachronism characterizes the Rabbinic concept of time, which is not linear but cyclical. Rashi illustrates this idea in explaining why the Torah uses verbs in the past tense while the Targum (ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah) puts these verbs in the present: "Every present tense is changed to a word in future or past tense because every affair of the present always already happened and will happen again" (Rashi on Genesis 29:3). Rashi gives us a terse encapsulation of the Rabbinic view of history: everything that happens refigures the past and prefigures the future. This fractal concept of time sets the stage for the abundance of midrashic interpretations offered by Rabbi Hanina.

Rabbi Hanina's second interpretation holds that the well is like Zion, and the three flocks of sheep are the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. From the well of Zion Israel draws forth not water but the divine spirit, for which all the people gather and rejoice.

The third interpretation also involves Zion, but this time the three flocks of sheep symbolize the three central courts of law. From this well the judges draw forth the water of Torah to learn how to rule; they put the stone back after they debate the law and settle the matter. Following the trajectory of the Rabbinic sense of history, it is quite natural to flow from the desert wandering to Zion. The first of the two Zions represents religious and national aspirations; the second recalls the legal system of the Israelite kingdom. Both hark back to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

In the fourth midrash, Rabbi Hanina evokes external historical forces. The well represents Zion again but the flocks are the three imperial powers who ruled it—Babylon, Persia, and Greece. These oppressors drew forth from the well the wealth of the Land of Israel and the Temple. When the stone is rolled back, in the future messianic age, the Roman yoke will also be broken. This interpretation acknowledges the trauma of defeat and exile, past and present. It ties the hope of future redemption from Roman oppression to the past defeat of the other imperial powers. We can hear in this midrash the Rabbi's prayer that God will redeem the people Israel from their exile and restore them to sovereignty in their homeland.

The fifth and sixth interpretations flow from exile to the Rabbinic way of keeping exilic Judaism alive. The well is like the Sanhedrin and the flocks of sheep are the three rows of scholars. From the depths of the well they learn halachah, debating it until settled, and then they place the stone of halachic decision making back in its place. Then the well is like the synagogue, with the three flocks of sheep as the three aliyot to the Torah. At this well Jews drink deeply from the water of Torah, hearing it read and learning its truth and wisdom. In this progression of allegories, first the Sanhedrin and then the synagogue replace the priesthood and the Temple as the center of Jewish communal organizing and authority.

The order of Rabbi Hanina's six interpretations seems profoundly intentional. It ends not on a messianic note, but with the symbol of Jewish survival in exile, namely, the synagogue. The beit k'neset offers real hope: there Torah is taught, and there Jewish continuity is ensured, even in the absence of sovereignty.

Of course the list can't end at six. Rabbi Yochanan offers a fitting chatimah (conclusion) that brings the total to seven, the Jewish number of completion. Here the well refers to Mount Sinai. The three flocks of sheep are the priests, Levites, and Israelites. From the well of Sinai they receive Torah and learn the Ten Commandments. The great stone is the Shechinah, God's Presence in exile. They rolled the stone away to hear God's word; they put the stone back at the close of God's Revelation.

The Revelation of Torah at Sinai is what makes the previous six interpretations possible. Without Sinai, the Exodus would have been incomplete, and there would be no Zion, redemption, Sanhedrin, halachah, synagogue, or, of course, Torah. Rabbi Yochanan's seventh allegory infuses the midrash series with a God's-eye view of Jewish historical experience. Exile and domination by a foreign power are temporary. What matters most is that God has chosen the people Israel as the bearers of Torah in the world, with the Rabbis as its teachers and interpreters. That belief has helped us suffer the most inhospitable conditions and yet remain a people of hope and peace. Even in the midst of insecurity and dispersion, the well of Torah travels with us and provides its life-giving waters whenever we roll away the stone of interpretation to plumb its depths.

Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

Jacob’s Internal and External Strength
Davar Acher By: 
Benjamin Sharff

Rabbi David Segal provides us with seven interpretations of the well where Jacob met Rachel as a metaphor for helping us to better understand the breadth and depth of Torah. There is another way to look at this incident as well. As Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut notes, "lifting and throwing heavy stones was an old way of proving prowess (as is indicated in the Iliad, XII)," (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (NY: URJ, 2005), p. 197).

This is in striking contrast to the previous description of Jacob in the Torah, where Jacob is described as being tam, a "homespun" or "mild" man (Genesis 25:27). Instead it is Jacob's brother Esau who is the one described as having physical prowess.

So we wonder, what changed in those ensuing days between Jacob "stealing" his birthright and his ability to move the rock covering the well? According to a midrash, "Jacob moved the rock as easily as one removes the stopper of a vial." (B'reishit Rabbah 70:12). Where did Jacob's sudden superhuman strength come from?

The most well-known strongman in Jewish tradition is Samson. He was one of the role models used by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in their infamous creation, Superman. Young Jacob, by contrast, is described by the Rabbis as being a talmid chacham,1 a Talmud scholar (yes, another anachronism), not exactly the model of strength. Clearly Jacob had the strength, but that is not the attribute our tradition decided to focus on.

The Torah appears to be reminding us that we have a central obligation to take care of our physical being just as much as we have the obligation to take care of our spiritual being. Jacob was credited for having a keen mind and a quick wit, and yet clearly, he was also strong of heart and strong of body.

Just as we look to grow in wisdom through Torah study and the like, so too, each day we should take time to build upon our bodies that contain this new found wisdom. For if we wish to remove the stones blocking our access to the richness our tradition has to offer, we need both the intellect and physical fortitude to do so.

1. Rabbi Moshe Weissman, The Midrash Says: The Book of Bereshit (Brooklyn, NY: Benei Yakov Publications, 1980), pp. 241-242

Rabbi Benjamin Sharff is the spiritual leader of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, Maryland. He was ordained at the Cincinnati Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

11/29/2014
Reference Materials: 

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 194–213; Revised Edition, pp. 194–213;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 157-182