What the Capture of Beersheva in 1917 Taught Me about Isaac
I am 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 paled in comparison to his son Jacob who raised 12 sons and a daughter, prepared defensive formations to meet a threatening Esau, and traveled to Egypt. 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 Parsha, Toldot. What was remarkable about his story in the Bible? Well, the Torah relates, 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 – by a well Abraham’s servant found Rivka, Isaac’s eventual wife. Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, found refuge at a well where later 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. But after he left the scene, the Philistine 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.
Opening the Wells 3000 Years Later
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 Beersheva, 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.”
The process was slow and vulnerable.
Enter Aaron Aaronsohn, the Jewish agronomist famous for establishing the Jewish spy network NILI to help the British. As described by Douglas Feith in 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.
Australian soldiers repair Beersheva well, November 1917.
A British Intelligence officer related this story, Feith wrote: “Aaronson 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 Beersheva 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 Beersheva: “To enable the attack upon Beersheva 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 who “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 Beersheva 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 Beersheva wells, General 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.” Beersheva 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 had filled in the wells, attempting to sabotage the expansion of Abraham’s universal message. The Turks blew up the wells seeking to stop the British Forces’ eventual liberation of Jerusalem and a repressed land. How ironic and tragic that today Hamas rockets from Gaza attempt to destroy the Ashkelon desalinization plant that could also provide sustenance to that parched land. Elsewhere in the Middle East – and the world – the patriarchs’ commitment to watering the world continues today thanks to Israel.
This commentary is dedicated to my grandson, Amichai Rhein, on the occasion of his bar mitzva on Shabbat Toldot.