Parshas Toldos is our annual Shabbos to focus on Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imeinu. This is their parsha. Even though, on the surface, it appears that Yitzchak’s life revolved around that of his father Avraham, we do find his uniqueness. His existence was not merely to uphold everything his father did, and to trace his father’s footsteps.
One pronounced difference is that while Avraham and Yaakov left the land of Israel at times of famine, Yitzchak was given a Divine mandate never to leave the land. But a close look at the verses shows that Yitzchak moved around a lot. That Apter Rav (Drishos Shabbos) points out that when Yitzchak and Rivka married, they lived in Chevron. We know this because they moved into Sara’s tent (Bereshis 24:67). When Avraham died, they moved to Be’er L’chai Ro’eei. Due to famine, they moved to G’rar (Avraham had relocated to Egypt, but HASHEM prevented Yitzchak and Rivka from leaving the land of Israel, they settled in G’rar, on Israel’s southern border.) After a negative experience in G’rar with King Avimelech, they returned north to Be’er Sheva. We know that after Yitzchak bestowed the first-born blessing upon Yaakov and not Eisav, Rivka warned her son to run away to Charan, to her ancestral home. “And Yaakov departed Be’er Sheva” and traveled to Charan” (Bereshis 28:10). When Yaakov and the large family he built in Charan return to the land of Israel, eventually they make it back to Yitzchak (Bereshis 35:27) who is now residing in Chevron. There Yitzchak dies and is buried in the Cave of Machpelah.
All of these residences make sense. Be’er Sheva and Chevron were places his father dwelled. He moved to G’rar due to famine. But why did Yitzchak move to Be’er L’chai Ro’ee?
In order to answer this question, we need to review when Be’er L’chai Ro’ee has been mentioned already in Chumash.
We first encounter this venue (Bereshis 16:7-14) as a pregnant Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid who was a concubine to Avraham, is chased away from the house. An angel sees her at an oasis of water in the desert and encourages her to return to the home of Avraham and Sarah, offering a Divine promise that her offspring will multiply greatly, and that she should name her soon-to-be-born son, Yishma’el, meaning, Hashem will hear. “Therefore the well was called Be’er L’chai Ro’ee, between Kadesh and Bered” (Ibid. verse 14).
Second, the Torah identifies Be’er L’chai Ro’ee as the area from which Yitzchak had returned, when Avraham’s loyal servant brought Rivka to him in order to marry him (Bereshis 24:62).
Finally, after Avraham’s death and burial, the Torah records that Hashem blessed Yitzchak and Yitchak settled in Be’er L’chai Ro’ee (Bereshis 25:11). It is there where Yitzchak and Rivka prayed for a child and there where the two boys were born and raised.
So what drew Yitzchak to this place associated with Hagar, his father’s concubine and mother of his half-brother?
Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch explained that when Hagar ran away from Sara and ended up by the well, she thought no one was there and no one saw. But she realized that even though you can run away from a human being, you cannot run away from God. God is always aware and is always cares. The angel tried to inculcate this lesson into Hagar: Hashem always hears our prayers and supplications. Even if someone believes no one understands their predicament.
The name of Hagar’s son, Yishmael, expresses this thought, and explains why his progeny, the Moslem people, have such a stress on prayer.
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger ties Be’er L’chai Ro’ee to the location of the akeidah, which Avraham named “Hashem Year’eh” (Bereshis 22:14). After almost being offered as a sacrifice, and the subsequent death of his mother, Yitzchak found solace at this famous watering hole, where Hashem comforted Hagar. That became his favorite spot to commune with the Almighty. This view is expressed by Ramban as well, who believes that he did not live there, but he visited frequently. (Unkelus rendered Be’er L’chai Ro’ee as the same as Be’er Sheva.)
The Zohar teaches that at Be’er L’chai Ro’ee, Yitzchak was able to commune with the Shechina (God’s Divine Presence). Yitzchak is identified with the power of prayer. The commentaries identify the wells that Yitzchak dug with the different Temples in Jerusalem, the loci of prayer for over eight hundred years.
Wells not only refer to prayer in general, but specifically, the prayer to find one’s spouse, one’s chosen one. Yitzchak journeyed from Be’er l’chai Ro’ee, and it was then when he first beheld Rivka, his life’s partner. In next week’s parsha, Yaakov encounters Rachel at a well (Bereshis 29:2-12), and Moshe first met Tziporah at the watering hole in Midian (Shmos 2:16-20). After all, finding one’s husband or wife can be a manifestation of a message from the Shechinah.
For Yitzchak, however, finding his partner wasn’t enough. Rashi cites a Midrash (Bereshis Rabbah 60) that Yitzchak returned to Be’er l’Chai Ro’ee to arrange for Hagar, now identified as Keturah, to return to re-marry Avraham. When he came back to his father’s home, it was then when Rivka was brought to him. According to this account, Hagar remained at Be’er l’Chai Ro’ee as her prayers too were answered there.
Yitzchak didn’t merely re-dig his father’s wells. He sanctified them as places of prayer. Before there was the Kosel (Western Wall), Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb),Meron (tomb of Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai), Amukah (burial place of Rabbi Yonasan ben Uziel) or even Har Hertzl (Mount Herzl where soldiers are buried)*, there was Be’er L’chai Ro’ee. Yitzchak knew that prayers were answered there, and he either moved to be close or visited often.
Yitzchak didn’t mimic his father’s actions. If you look close enough, you can see that he taught the Jewish people its secret weapon: prayer. Prayer is introverted highly personal, private and effective, all traits of Yitzchak Avinu.
In my living room is a beautiful photo my wife took. It’s a very personal photo of a man covered by his tallis immersed in prayer. People love the photo. It happens to be me under the tallis, and it was taken at sunrise at the Grand Canyon. But you can’t tell it’s the Grand Canyon, and you certainly can’t identify the individual praying. Those are major components of why it hangs in our living room. But the details are not needed. It’s enough to say it’s a man praying.
Prayer represents working on our relationship with Hashem, feeling the presence of the Almighty. We all need to work harder on prayer, and we all need to toil more in feeling the Shechinah in our lives. May we all succeed in living the values of the middle patriarch, Yitzchak.
*When Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztl’ was asked about praying at the tombs of the righteous up north, he asked why not just go to Mount Herzl and pray by the tombs of Israeli soldiers.