And [Yaakov] saw that there was a well in the field. Three flocks of sheep were there lying beside it, since it was from this well that the flocks were watered, and a great stone [blocked] the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).
This is how the Torah describes Yaakov’s arrival at the house of Lavan, his uncle, after fleeing from his wicked brother, Eisav, and beginning his search for a wife. Curiously, when Eliezer, servant of Yaakov’s grandfather Avrohom, arrived at the same place a generation earlier, the Torah describes the location of the well not “in the field” but ”at the edge of the city” (Bereishis 24:11).
This seeming inconsistancy provides the basis for an enigmatic debate recorded in the Talmud (Bechoros 8b):
The Elders of Athens said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, “We have a well out in the fields; bring it into the city.”
Rabbi Yehoshua took chaff and threw it before them, saying, “Make me a rope out of chaff and I will bring it in.”
They asked, “Who can make a rope out of chaff?”
He replied, “Then who can bring a well from the field into the city?”
Last week, we explained that the Torah employs the imagery of a well – the source of water, which is the basis of physical life – as a symbol for Torah itself, which is the source of spiritual life.
The Malbim explains that when peace and a sense of unity exist among the Jewish people, when they live in the Land of Israel with the Divine Word guiding their actions and their attitudes, then the “well” of Torah is “in the city,” providing the people with security and their settlements with prosperity.
However, when our spiritual negligence and complacency cause us to be exiled from our land and subjected to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life among the nations of the earth, when we have to struggle against all manner of obstacles to keep G-d’s word and His commandments central in our lives, then the well of Torah is “in the field.”
This was the assertion of the Elders of Athens, the scholars of the Roman Empire who based their wisdom on the teachings of the ancient Greeks: If you Jews are divided against one another, if you yourselves recognize sinas chinom, the senseless hatred among you, as the cause of your exile, then how can you ever expect to earn your redemption? How can you believe that the well “in the field” will ever become transformed into a well “in the city?”
Rabbi Yehoshua’ s answer finds its meaning in the continuation of the Torah narrative:
And all the flocks would gather there, and they would roll away the stone from the mouth of the well and allow the flocks to drink, and then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).
To bring the well from the “field” into the “city” requires a spiritual “rope” to bind the future with the past. The Malbim explains that the three flocks represent the three eras of Jewish exile, each imposing upon the people the challenges and crises. Only by working together to overcome these challenges will the people achieve a level of unity to become worthy of redemption and acquiring the merit to build HaShem’s Temple so that the Divine Presence can dwell in their midst.
In the course of the first two exiles, the collective merit of a unified Jewish nation ultimately ”rolled away the stone” of temptation and transgression, allowing the waters of spirituality to flow free and revive a spiritually thirsty people. And each time, prosperity encouraged the people to stray after the inclinations of the hearts, so that the stone of self-indulgence and self-interest rolled back to its place and drove the people back into the parched desert of exile.
The first era was galus Mitzrayim, the exile in Egypt, which forged the people into a nation and culminated in their entry into the land and their ultimate construction of the first Beis HaMikdash. Tragically, without the external pressure provided by enemies around them, their commitment to one another dissolved and, over time, led to the erosion of their collective merit and their exile to Babylon.
Thus began the second era, in which the Jews gradually earned back the privilege of living in their land, rebuilding the Temple, and regaining political autonomy in the aftermath of the miracle of Chanukah. But infighting among the descendants of the Hasmoneans eventually led to the disintegration of political stability, the conquest by the Roman Empire, and the destruction of the second Temple.
Out of the ruins of the Roman Empire grew Western Civilization, the final exile of Jewish history, in which the twin attractions of material prosperity and cultural assimilation have exceeded all the obstacles to spirituality that have confronted the Jews throughout all previous ages. And once again, the divisiveness that traces its roots back to the senseless hatred of 2000 years ago stands in the way of bringing the well of Torah and spiritual redemption from the “field” into the “city.”
Scattered like chaff, the Jewish people will remain in exile until, by bonding together in unity, they form the “rope” that connects them back to their origins as a cohesive people. When that happens, Rabbi Yehoshua told the Elders, when the “chaff” of disunity becomes a “rope” of redemption, then the Jewish people will find their way home.
But how is that possible? the Elders asked. Just as chaff cannot make a rope, disaffected and disparate individuals cannot form a people.
That may be true, answered Rabbi Yehoshua. But the image of chaff only describes the Jewish people in the most simplistic and superficial way. We may appear cut off from one another, but we share the collective soul of the Almighty’s chosen people. The more we become distant from one another, the more we yearn to return to our common roots. As the exile grows darker and deeper, we come closer to the time when the very depths of our spiritual darkness will compel us to pull together, thereby pulling ourselves forward into the light of the messianic era.
Rabbi Goldson writes at Torah Ideals