By Shlomo Riskin
“And they said, we saw indeed that the Lord was with you and we said: let there now be an oath between us, between us and you, and let us make a covenant with you.” (Gen. 26:28)
On what basis, and with which types of people, can we make peace treaties? A careful reading of the relationships between Abraham, Isaac and Avimelekh – and especially a study of this week’s parsha, Toldot – provides an answer to these questions, and contains a crucial message for the government of Israel in our time.
We first meet Avimelekh in the parsha of Vayera, when Abraham wandered over to Gerar, the area where Avimelekh ruled. Gerar was the land of the Philistines, which is part of the Divinely-promised borders of Israel. Abraham referred to Sarah as his sister, and she was immediately taken into Avimelekh’s harem – without anyone asking her or her ‘brother’s’ permission [Gen. 20:2].
Clearly, Avimelekh was a lascivious and cruel despot, who certainly would have murdered any husband of Sarah. After he was given a dire warning in a dream sent by God, Avimelekh played the innocent victim, asserting that the fault lies with Abraham since he [Avimelekh] acted ‘with purity of heart and innocence of hand’ [ibid. 20:5]. Abraham correctly explains: ‘…there is no fear of God in this place, and I would have been murdered because of my wife’ [ibid. 20:11].
Despite Avimelekh’s apparent duplicity as a woman-snatcher and well-stealer [ibid. 26:25], Abraham makes a treaty with him. Abraham gives him sheep and cattle, as well as seven more ewes as a sign that he dug the well at Be’er Sheva. It is remarkable that it is Abraham who does the giving: he receives nothing, although the covenant, the oath, is taken by both of them.
This brings us to Toldot, where the most important thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history. Now, it is Isaac, Abraham’s son, who is forced by famine to go to “Avimelekh, the King of the Philistines, to Gerar” [ibid. 26:1]. Immediately, the people of the area ask about his wife and – for self-protection – he, too, refers to Rebecca as his sister. We discover that Avimelekh is also a voyeur; he looks into Isaac’s window and sees him ‘playing’ with his wife! Yet again, Avimelekh feigns innocence, calling Isaac the deceiver. ‘What is this that you did to us by claiming she was your sister? One of my people almost slept with your wife!’ [ibid. 26:10]
Isaac amasses a vast accumulation of wealth, including cattle, sheep and servants. He is still living in Gerar, “and the Philistines were jealous of him” [ibid. 26:14]. This is the same Avimelekh and Philistines with whom Abraham made his covenant. Nevertheless, “the Philistines stopped up all of the wells which were dug by the servants of his father,” and Avimelekh forces Isaac to move away because “his wealth was amassed from them” [ibid. 26:16]. Isaac leaves, but nevertheless insists upon re-digging the wells of his father which had been destroyed.
To add insult to injury, Isaac now digs two new wells in his new location – only to have the Philistines arguing with him over the ownership of the water. After all that has transpired, Avimelekh comes to Isaac flanked by his general Pikhol and “ahuzat me-re’ehu” – group of friends – to sign another treaty with him. Isaac is understandably surprised, seeing that they have hated him and exiled him.
The fork-tongued Avimelekh argues, “we have done only good towards you because we sent you away in peace.” The Philistine king apparently believes that if a Jew is banished – but is permitted to flee with his life intact – the Jew ought to be grateful! And, despite Avimelekh’s history, Isaac has a feast with him and they swear yet another oath together. Isaac now renames the place Be’er Sheva in honor of this second oath-treaty.
Is the Torah teaching us to continue to make treaties, even though our would-be partners have a history of duplicity and treachery? I believe the very opposite to be the case. The actions of the ancestors are repeated in the lives of their children. Unfortunately, Jews are always over-anxious to believe that their enemies have become their friends and the leopard has changed his spots.
Just as Abraham is punished for his treaty with Avimelekh, so is Isaac punished for his treaty with Avimelekh. The Land of Israel is too important – and the preservation of a Jewish future is too vulnerable – for us to take risks and make treaties with unconscionable and dishonest rulers. A treaty is only possible when it is made with a partner who, like us, lives in awe of God.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.