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Parashat Vayera

October 23, 2007

By Jaron Matlow

Water is a very simple chemical molecule. It contains one Oxygen atom and two Hydrogen atoms, and it appears in the shape of the letter V. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, water has tremendous powers in the world of chemistry. These powers are the very reason life can exist on our planet.

Interestingly enough, water has a molecular weight of 18. The number 18 is, of course, very significant in the world of gematria, the study of the numerical value of Hebrew words. Gematria is based on values assigned to each Hebrew letter in their sequence in the Aleph-Bet. Aleph is one, bet is two, and so on. The number 18, is of course the value of the Hebrew word, Hai, (Yu’d, 10; He’t, 8) – meaning, to be alive. Thus in both the worlds of chemistry and the spiritual, water has a very significant meaning in that it is life!

In the creation story, as the second day begins, the first tangible substance is water, without which we cannot survive. Just three weeks ago, we recited the prayer, Tefillat Geshem, asking for rain in the Land of Israel in its due season. Rain brings us the needed water so that we can live, as the planet experiences its natural cycles. This prayer asks for rain to support life and peace.

In the Bible, water can be found as symbolic for life and death, peace and destruction. Two weeks ago, we read about the mei ha-mabul, the Flood waters, and the death and destruction that came from them. We also find many symbols of peace associated with water, such as when the prophet states, “They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Holy Blessed One, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

In the stories of the desert in the Bible, the source of water is the well. Thus the well also has huge significance for us. There are many stories in the Torah surrounding wells, and in fact, most of our heritage begins with stories around the well. Nahum Sarna points out that wells “frequently served as meeting-places for townsfolk, shepherds and travelers, and often were assembly places for Bedouin rituals.” (Understanding Genesis.New York: Schocken Books. 1966. P. 172, n.)

In Parashat Vayera, we find another story of a well. This story appears in chapter 21, in a section overshadowed by a number of hugely significant, oft studied stories. We find Abraham and Abimelekh, a leader of a clan in Gerar, in the land of the Philistines, arguing
over possession of a well (21:25 ff). Abraham rebukes Abimelekh, since Abimelekh’s servants had reportedly taken possession of a well dug by Abraham’s servants. Abimelekh responds (21:26) “I do not know who has done this thing; nor did you tell me, nor have I heard of it, until today.”

We find in a midrash that Abraham offers to “let the well prove who is right. We will go there and the well will belong to whomever the waters rise to greet. The well proves that it belongs to Abraham. (See Blumberg, Raphael, TR. Insights in the Torah. Commentary of the Master Rav and Maggid Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, ZT”L. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, ltd. 1991. P. 156.)

The resolution of this story is an amazing one. Even though Abraham is the apparent wronged party in this dispute, he resolves it by first giving Abimelekh sheep and oxen, over which they made a b’rit, a covenant (21:27). Abraham further gives Abimelekh seven ewes (21:28ff) as a sign that this is a well that Abraham has dug by his own hands.

Abraham’s ability to forgive is legendary. In Pirkei Avot, (V:14) we find that “There are four kinds of temperament: . . . Hard to anger, easy to calm – such people are truly holy . . . “[1] Abraham is the model of this, as he not only quickly calms down, but starts the peace process.

May we take Abraham’s example as a model for life. Even if we feel that we are the wronged one, may the Holy Blessed One grant us the gift to quickly find calm and tranquility. May we find the strength to take the first step in resolving disputes, and may we see that day when peace is the norm, and all humanity strives for ethical living.

[1] Shapiro, Rabbi Rami M. Wisdom of the Jewish Sages. New York: Bell Tower. 1993. P.111