Waiting at the Well: Just a Story or Containing Deep Meaning?

A common view of the Torah is that everything has a meaning and there are no extraneous details. Entire time periods, like the first seventy years of Avraham’s life, are glossed over, presumably because there are not so important. With this line of thinking there must be great meaning to the first half of Genesis 29, which describes one encounter at a well between Jacob and Rachel.

For the sake of brevity we will examine only the first three verses of this portion. They read as follows:

Jacob lifted his feet and went to the land of the easterners. He looked, and                                  behold! There was a well in the field and behold! Three flocks of sheep lay down                      by it, for from that well the flocks would drink, and the stone over the well was                        large. All of the flocks were gathered there and they (the shepherds) rolled the                        stone off of the well, and they watered the flocks, and they returned the stone on                    top of the well, to its place.[1]

A few questions that immediately jump out are why does it say “and behold!” (והנה) twice? What’s the big deal about the fact that there was a well in the field and that three flocks of sheep lay down beside it? Why make a big deal about the shepherds rolling the stone off the well and rolling it back down? Who cares about any of these details?

The Baal HaTurim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, well-known for his code of Jewish law on which the Shulchan Aruch is based, comments on the gematria (numerical value) of “three flocks” (שלשה עדרי). He writes that “three flocks” has the gematria as “Moses, Aaron and Miriam”-that these flocks represented the future leaders of the Jewish people.[2] Unfortunately the math is a little off, yet even if it were not I favor instead the interpretation of Rabbenu Bahya of 14th century Spain. Bahya asserts that the three flocks represent the three divisions of Israel: Kohanim, Leviim and Yisraelim.[3] If we extend that analogy further we can assert that the rock is THE ROCK, or G-d, and the shepherds, or leaders of the Jewish people, are waiting for the time to open the ark and begin the minyan.[4]

Rabbi Chaim Paltiel of 13th century France brings a number of Midrashic interpretations as to what the well, the flocks and the stone represent but I will only comment on my favorite. He writes that the well in the field represents Zion, the three flocks of sheep represent the three pilgrimage festivals, when our ancestors went to Jerusalem, and the drinking from the well represents their drawing out G-d’s presence. The big stone represents the evil inclination and it is present when the people leave, as they are no longer engaging with G-d or with Torah.[5] Water is associated both with Torah and with G-d in addition to being our life source and our drinking from it sustains us and gives us vitality.

These are just a few of the myriad interpretations of this seemingly mundane section of the Torah and yet we need to ask why does it matter and why should we care? Steve often points out how significant a Jewish number three is, not only because it emphasizes things but also because it symbolizes stability. Three patriarchs, three festivals, a minimum of three Aliyot to the Torah, a minimum of three verses in an Aliyah of Torah are only a few of the many examples of the use of three. Therefore, three flocks of sheep is not merely a number; it is a sign to Jacob of G-d’s presence. Similarly, one well represents the one G-d or the one Torah through which G-d’s will is emanated. Like the sheep, we as Israel drink from the well and it renews us, giving us strength. Our shepherds, or leaders, are the ones who enable us to do this by lifting the stone off the well, removing any challenges or obstacles that we might face from connecting to G-d and to Torah.

It sounds like a pretty picture but why in the end would the shepherds return the stone back to the well? For this we return to Rabbi Paltiel, who said that the stone represents the evil inclination, or יצר הרע. The Midrash teaches that without the Yetzer HaRa, no one would marry or have children; humanity would not continue on.[6] We were not created to be angels, always doing G-d’s bidding and on the highest spiritual rungs of life. Rather we have time when we are more spiritual and times when we give in to our baser desires.

Jacob personally demonstrates this divide. Unlike the other shepherds, he singlehandedly rolls the stone off the well upon sight of Rachel. Love makes us do things that the doubters do not believe is possible. Was it Jacob overcoming his יצר הרע that enabled him to do this or was it the sheer emotion in his love for Rachel that made him successful? We can read the text either way but what’s clear is that things are not always what meets the eye. Upon first glance this story is greatly detailed in order to set the stage for Jacob’s meeting Rachel. However, upon a closer look, one can read deeper spiritual messages into the text-Jacob seeing his future as one of the leaders of the people of Israel, him understanding that Torah will be the source of this people’s sustenance and his realization that his meeting Rachel (and later Leah) will result in the birth of the namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. The lesson we learn is to not gloss over details but to strive to find deeper meaning in every part of Torah.[7]

[1] Genesis 29:1-3

[2] Baal HaTurim ד”ה שלשה עדרי

[3] Rabbenu Bahya צאן  ד”ה והנה שם שלשה עדרי

[4] This is my own reasoning, not that of Rabbenu Bahya.

[5] Rabbi Chaim Paltiel וירא והנה באר… פ”א באר בשדה, זה בית הכנסת, והנה שם שלשה עדרי צאן רובצים, אילו ג’ שקורין בתורה, כי מן הבאר ההיא ישקו העדרים, שמשם היו שומעים תורה, והאבן הגדולה על פי הבאר, זה יצר הרע, ונאספו שמה כל העדרים, זו הציבור שהם באים לבית הכנסת להתפלל, וגללו את האבן, שמשם היו שומעים תורה, והשיבו את האבן על פי הבאר, שכיון שיוצאים מבית הכנסת יצר הרע חוזר למקומו.

[6] Genesis Rabbah 9:7 רבי נחמן בר שמואל בר נחמן בשם רב שמואל בר נחמן אמר הנה טוב מאד זה יצר טוב והנה טוב מאד זה יצר רע וכי יצר הרע טוב מאד אתמהא אלא שאלולי יצר הרע לא בנה אדם בית ולא נשא אשה ולא הוליד ולא נשא ונתן וכן שלמה אומר (קהלת ד) כי היא קנאת איש מרעהו

[7] This is in accordance with the School of Rabbi Akiva, where not only does every word in the Torah have a deeper meaning and significance, but so does every crown on one of the letters-as Rabbi Burt Visotzky teaches, every “jot and tittle” has significance! For those who prefer to see this section as narrative, see Rabbi Yishmael who teaches תורה דברה כלשון ב”א; that the Torah speaks as a person would, sometimes going into narrative just to tell a story as opposed to deriving meaning from each part.

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