The pa­tri­arch and the Light Horse­men

What the cap­ture of Beer­sheba in 1917 taught me about Isaac

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By LENNY BEN-DAVID

Iam ashamed to say it, but when I was a kid I thought Isaac, the Jewish pa­tri­arch, was a wuss: a good son, a spit­ting im­age of his fa­ther, a will­ing vol­un­teer to be sac­ri­ficed to God, a learned man and a farmer. But he didn’t travel the world like his fa­ther Abra­ham – from Baby­lon to south­ern Turkey, to Canaan, Egypt, Philis­tine and back to Canaan. He wasn’t a war­rior like Abra­ham who com­manded 300 fight­ers on a forced march from the Dead Sea to Da­m­as­cus to bat­tle kings. Isaac never over­shad­owed his son Ja­cob who raised 12 sons and a daugh­ter, trav­eled to Egypt and pre­pared de­fen­sive for­ma­tions to meet a threat­en­ing Esau. Ja­cob was the founder of the peo­ple of Is­rael, his name­sake.

While the lives, trav­els and tra­vails of Abra­ham, Ja­cob and Joseph are spread across much of the Book of Gen­e­sis, the story of Isaac barely fills this week’s To­rah por­tion, Toldot. What was remarkable about his story in the Bi­ble? Well, he dug wells, he opened wells that had been sealed by the Philistines, and he gave names to the wells.

Rab­binic lit­er­a­ture com­pares flowing wa­ter to the To­rah – es­sen­tial for life – and the rab­bis credit Isaac for the nur­tur­ing To­rah he pro­vided. Three of his wells were given names re­lated to the first and sec­ond Tem­ples, ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, and the third name sig­ni­fied the third, fu­ture Tem­ple. And wells al­ways played an im­por­tant role for the ro­mances of the To­rah. Abra­ham’s ser­vant found Rivka, Isaac’s even­tual wife, by a well. Hagar, Abra­ham’s sec­ond wife, found refuge at a well where Isaac first met Rivka. And Moses met his wife Zip­po­rah by a well.

Still, why did the To­rah pro­vide a long nar­ra­tive about Isaac and his in­ter­ac­tion with the Philistines over the wells? Commentaries point out that both Abra­ham and Isaac had testy ex­pe­ri­ences with the Philistines of Gaza, but the tribe rec­og­nized and re­spected the power and stature of Abra­ham. How­ever, af­ter he left the scene, the Philistines filled in the wells, chal­leng­ing Isaac to do some­thing about it.

Why? Be­cause wells pro­vided the sus­te­nance to grow crops, wa­ter herds and build com­mu­ni­ties. They al­lowed no­madic tribes to set down roots. And af­ter the roots were set, the wa­ters en­abled com­mu­ni­ties to grow in num­bers and space. It was what both Abra­ham and Isaac were promised and what they strove for. It was what the Philistines sought to block.

Af­ter the Turks and Ger­mans failed to dis­lodge the Bri­tish forces along the Suez Canal in 1915, the Bri­tish de­cided to take the bat­tle to them in the Si­nai and Pales­tine. The ma­jor Turkish base for the south­ern cam­paign was in Beer­sheba, with its wells and rail­head. The ma­jor im­ped­i­ment for the Bri­tish cross­ing the Si­nai and into the Negev was the lack of wa­ter.

A NEW ZEALAND of­fi­cer of the Mounted Ri­fles de­scribed how they over­came the chal­lenge: “The wa­ter was brought through two pipe lines which were laid side by side over the desert and even­tu­ally took the Nile into Pales­tine, by a sys­tem of pumps and reser­voirs in ap­prox­i­mately 20-mile stages.”

En­ter Aaron Aaron­sohn, the Jewish agron­o­mist fa­mous for es­tab­lish­ing the Jewish spy net­work NILI to help the Bri­tish. As de­scribed by Dou­glas Feith in the on­line Mo­saic Mag­a­zine last year, Aaron­sohn pre­sented to the Bri­tish a “the­ory that wa­ter flowed in abun­dance un­der the deserts of Si­nai and south­ern Pales­tine. He mocked the as­sump­tion of Bri­tish of­fi­cers that they needed to build a rail­road and pipe­line to bring wa­ter from Egypt.” Aaron­sohn cited an­cient writ­ings about gar­dens in the desert, and in­sisted that wa­ter could be found be­neath the ground. “Rock for­ma­tions sup­ported his the­ory,” Feith wrote.

A Bri­tish In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer re­lated this story. Feith wrote: “Aaron­sohn bul­lied the of­fi­cer com­mand­ing the Royal Engi­neers into send­ing to Egypt for bor­ing ma­chin­ery, un­der­tak­ing that wa­ter would be found at a depth of 300 feet. When an ex­per­i­men­tal shaft was sunk, wa­ter gushed up from a depth of 295 feet.”

Wells and sources of wa­ter sup­ported the Bri­tish cam­paign to cap­ture Beer­sheba and all of Pales­tine – and Aaron­sohn’s knowl­edge of the wells – was es­sen­tial. He was fol­low­ing in his fore­fa­ther Isaac’s foot­steps.

The New Zealand mil­i­tary di­arist de­scribed the wa­ter search around Beer­sheba: “To en­able the at­tack upon Beer­sheba to be so made, prepara­tory mea­sures had to be un­der­taken some days be­fore, to pro­vide wa­ter for those troops taking part in the en­cir­cling move­ment and also to ad­vance the front line. The wa­ter re­quired was to be suf­fi­cient” for sev­eral divi­sions, he wrote. “The bulk of the work of find­ing and de­vel­op­ing the wa­ter sup­ply fell on two brigades” and AN­ZAC field squadrons “per­formed won­ders .... The work at Kha­lasa and As­luj con­sisted of clear­ing out the deep wells that the Turks had blown in.”

The desert wells pro­vided wa­ter for the men and horses, some of which had gone 35 hours with­out drink­ing. The joint Aus­tralian-New Zealand-Bri­tish force was able to cap­ture Beer­sheba and its wells. As the troops stormed into the desert oa­sis, the Turks and Ger­mans de­stroyed some of the wells, which Aus­tralian engi­neers re­paired.

With their an­i­mals wa­tered and their can­teens filled from the Beer­sheba wells, Gen. Al­lenby’s troops fol­lowed God’s com­mand­ment to Ja­cob: “Thou shalt spread to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south.” Beer­sheba was the point from which Al­lenby’s troops went north to Jerusalem and west to Gaza and Jaffa. One year later, they were in Da­m­as­cus.

The Philistines and the Turks had filled in the wells, at­tempt­ing to sab­o­tage the ex­pan­sion of Abra­ham’s univer­sal mes­sage and the Bri­tish forces’ lib­er­a­tion of Jerusalem and a re­pressed land. How ironic and tragic that to­day Ha­mas rock­ets from Gaza at­tempt to de­stroy the Ashkelon de­sali­na­tion plant that could also pro­vide sus­te­nance to that parched land. Else­where in the Mid­dle East – and the world – the pa­tri­archs’ com­mit­ment to wa­ter the world con­tin­ues to­day.

This com­men­tary is ded­i­cated to my grand­son, Amichai Rhein, on the oc­ca­sion of his bar mitz­vah on Shab­bat Toldot.

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