Parashat Toldot- The Flourishing of Torah She’be’al Peh
We read in Parashat Toledot of Yishak Abinu’s experiences when he lived among the Pelishtim, including the story of the wells which his shepherds dug. The Torah relates that the first two times when Yishak’s men dug wells, the shepherds of Gerar fought over the water, claiming it was theirs. Both times, Yishak’s shepherds moved to a different location and dug new wells. Finally, after the third time, there was no fighting. Yishak then proclaimed, "Ki Ata Hirhib Hashem Lanu U’farinu Ba’aretz" – "Indeed, now G-d has made space for us, and we have been fruitful in the land" (26:22). He therefore named the site of this well "Rehobot" (from the word "Hirhib").
Rav Shlomo Halberstam of Bobov (1907-2000), in Dibreh Shlomo, explains the symbolic significance of these wells which Yishak Abinu dug. He cites the Tikuneh Zohar as commenting that when the Torah speaks of the shepherds of Gerar fighting over the water, it alludes to the fights that would be waged over the Torah She’be’al Peh – our oral tradition, the laws and teachings of the Talmud and its countless volumes of commentaries. Just as the Pelishtim fought over the wells dug by Yishak, our enemies have fought with the Jewish People over the Talmud. The Torah here refers to the water discovered by Yishak’s men as "Be’er Mayim Haim" – "a well of living water," alluding to the oral tradition because this is the source of life for the Jewish Nation, the source of our spiritual sustenance. The wells were dug in the "Nahal" ("valley"), which is a Name of G-d which represents the words, "Noser Hesed La’alafim" ("preserves kindness for thousands [of generations]"), and which is thus associated with Hashem’s attribute of compassion. The Torah She’be’al Peh is a source of great mercy and compassion for the Jewish People, and it is thus alluded to in the Torah through the word "Nahal," which signifies Hashem’s mercy.
Accordingly, the fights waged over these wells represent the assaults made on the Torah She’be’al Peh. On several different occasions in our history, hostile gentiles ordered the burning of the Talmud. Most famously, in 1244, the authorities in Paris ordered the burning of all the editions of the Talmud throughout the city. The Maharam Me’Rutenberg, one of the leading Torah sages of the time, composed a heartrending Kina (dirge) lamenting this tragedy, comparing the destruction of the Talmud to the destruction of the Bet Ha’mikdash. Ashkenazic communities have the custom to include this Kina among the Kinot recited on Tisha B’Ab mourning the loss of the Bet Ha’mikdash, emphasizing the equation between the burning of the Talmud and the burning of the Temple.
However, just as Yishak and his men did not give up, and continued digging in search of water after being assaulted by the shepherds of Gerar, similarly, the Jews never gave up their quest for knowledge of the Talmud. Each time the Talmud was destroyed, they continued onward and "dug" again. They printed new texts and persisted in their devotion to Talmud story. Recognizing that this study is our "water," our nation’s life-source, they continued unabated, never relenting in their dedication to the study of our sacred Torah She’be’al Peh.
The Dibreh Shlomo writes that the third well dug by Yishak, over which no fights were waged, represents the flourishing of Torah She’be’al Peh in our generation, here in the United States. Yishak said at that time, "Ki Hirhib Hashem Lanu" – that Hashem had allowed him to "expand" and grow. Indeed, in modern times, the study of the Talmud has "expanded" and flourished like never before. It has been translated into several languages, along with lucid commentaries and explanations. Modern technology has allowed everyone to access classes explaining the Talmud with clarity and in great detail. In our day and age, there is no excuse for anyone not to study the Talmud, as it has been accessible to one and all. And, sure enough, the Daf Yomi movement has drawn thousands upon thousands of participants, who loyally study a page of Talmud each day. Wherever we go where there are Jews, we see men with a Gemara. Truly, in our time, we have seen the fulfillment of "Hirhib Hashem Lanu," when the study of our oral law has flourished and blossomed like never before.
Let us appreciate the great privilege we have to live in these exciting times, and to recommit ourselves to the devoted study of the Talmud, through which we will access Hashem’s unlimited mercy which will be bestowed upon us, our entire community, and all Am Yisrael, amen.