If At First You Don’t Succeed

Vayachperu be’er acheres vayarivu gam alehah (Bereishis 26:21)

The Torah relates in what seems to be excruciating detail the story of the various wells dug by Yitzchak and his servants, the names they were called, and how their jealous neighbors repeatedly fought with them to challenge their ownership. As we know that every word in the Torah is carefully measured and is excluded unless absolutely necessary, why does the Torah spend numerous verses relating what seems to be such a mundane and inconsequential event?

The following amazing (and true) story will help us appreciate the answer to this question. Harav Yitzchak Zilberstein tells of a now-happily-married couple whose shidduch meetings couldn’t have gone worse. As the boy was returning home from their first meeting, he was lightly injured in a minor car accident. After he recovered, they went out again. On their second meeting, the house they were meeting in caught on fire and the girl was taken to the hospital for treatment. Still unfazed, they went out a third time. Each time they met again, something happened.

By this point, the boy had had enough and was ready to accept the Divine “hints” about the potential match. He decided that he didn’t want to go out with this girl again. However, his highly rational parents wouldn’t accept his decision and convinced him to go out one more time.

Although everything about the couple’s interactions seemed quite compatible, the boy was shaken and adamant in his refusal to proceed. His father approached Harav Chaim Kanievsky to solicit his opinion about the entire episode. After hearing the incredible story, Rav Chaim said that he didn’t see any rational reason to decline the otherwise compatible match, although he did advise that the couple go out one more time. In consideration of the opinion of Rav Chaim, the boy agreed to another meeting, which was indeed incident-free and marked the beginning of a beautiful life together for the happy young couple!

In light of this story, we can now answer our original question about the wells. Harav Aharon Bakst suggests that the Torah relates this episode to teach us the valuable lesson that in spiritual matters, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We hear so many miraculous stories of pious Rabbis that we might erroneously assume that if a person is attempting to perform a mitzvah, everything will work out on his initial attempt without any unforeseen delays or obstacles. If it doesn’t, we may despondently conclude that it is a Heavenly sign that this endeavor hasn’t found favor with Hashem and should be abandoned.

To counter this mistaken understanding, the Torah recounts the great lengths to which Yitzchak had to go to successfully locate an uncontested source of fresh water. Our Sages teach (Bava Kamma 82a) that water is a metaphor for Torah. The lesson we can take from here is that there is no room for superstitious despair. If our projects of spiritual growth don’t go the way we would have hoped, we should reexamine them. If they still make sense on their own rational merits, we shouldn’t read ominous signs into an unexpected turn of events, but rather we should redouble our efforts until we succeed.

Q: When Esav returned from hunting in the field, he asked Yaakov to give him some of the red lentil stew that he was cooking (25:30). Why did Yaakov give him both bread and stew to eat (25:34) when Esav had only requested the stew?

Q: If Yitzchak knew that his brother-in-law Lavan was wicked, why did he instruct Yaakov (28:2) to marry one of his daughters?

A: The Maharam Schiff answers that Yaakov wanted to purchase the birthright from Esav with the food that he gave him, but he was concerned that the monetary value of the stew may have been less than one perutah, which is the minimum amount required to legally effect a monetary transaction, so he added the bread to ensure that the food items would be worth more than one perutah. Alternatively, Harav Yehoshua Leib Diskin cites the ruling of the Gemara (Shevuos 26a) that an oath made under duress is not legally binding. He explains that when Yaakov was planning to have Esav swear to uphold the sale of the birthright, but Esav remarked (25:32) that he was so exhausted and sick that he thought he may die, Yaakov became concerned that such an oath would be considered to have been made under duress and would not be binding. Therefore, he first gave Esav bread to eat to restore his health so that the oath that he would make when selling the birthright for the lentil stew would be legally binding.

A: The Gemara in Bava Basra (110a) teaches that before marrying a woman, it is important to investigate her brothers, because a woman’s sons grow up to be similar to her brothers. Similarly, the Moshav Zekeinim explains that daughters grow up to be similar to their father’s sisters. It was for this reason that Yitzchak advised Yaakov to marry Lavan’s daughter. Even though Yitzchak knew that her father was very wicked, he nevertheless relied on the fact that his daughters would be similar to their aunt — Rivkah.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.