The name name “Be’er Sheva” appears a total of nine times in Sefer Bereishit, and serves as the opening verse of our parasha, Vayatze: “And Jacob left Be’er Sheva and went to Haran” (28:10). The nine-fold repetition of Be’er Sheva suggests that it was an unusually important place during the time of the avot. Indeed, each of the patriarchs lived in Be’er Sheva at different points in their lives. Moreover, Be’er Sheva was clearly a place of extraordinary kedushah, since it is the context for the sole instance in Tanach of the term, “A-le Olam”: “And he (Abraham) planted an eishel [a grove or an inn] in Be’er Sheva, and he called there in the name of the L-rd, the G-d of the World (A-le Olam)” (21:33).
In his commentary on this verse, Rashi, based upon Talmud Bavli, Sotah 10a, suggests that the eishel in Be’er Sheva provided Abraham with the opportunity to publicize the existence of Hashem to all mankind:
“By means of that eishel, the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, was called ‘G-d of the Entire World.’ After they [the wayfarers] would eat and drink, he would say to them, ‘Bless the One of whose [food] you have eaten. Do you think that you have eaten of my [food]? [You have eaten of the food] of the One Who spoke and the world came into being!”
Be’er Sheva, therefore, emerges as a precursor to Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, for it was from this hallowed ground that the avot were able teach the world about the existence of “the One Who spoke and the world came into being.” My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (the Rav), expanded upon this idea and noted: “Be’er Sheva was rooted in a wellspring of kedushah. It was a fulcrum for offerings to G-d and a conduit for the Divine Presence.” As such, Be’er Sheva was the center of pre-Sinatic Torah and prophecy, and the nucleus of many of the beliefs and practices associated with Judaism until our present historical moment.
Now that we are familiar with ancient Be’er Sheva’s unique spiritual standing, we are in a much better position to understand why the first pasuk of our parasha emphasizes that Jacob left Be’er Sheva, instead of simply stating, “and Jacob went to Haran,” as we find in an earlier verse: “And Jacob listened to his father and his mother, and he went to Padan Aram [i.e. Haran]” (28:7). According to the Rav: “And Jacob left Be’er Sheva, denotes that Jacob was severed somehow from Be’er Sheva … uprooted by forces beyond his control, compelled to leave a place he loved … a place to which he had become bonded.” Moreover, and quite significantly, “Jacob and Be’er Sheva had merged into one symbiotic entity, and now Jacob had to leave … and wander.”
What was the nature of the symbiotic relationship that obtained between Jacob and Be’er Sheva? Rav Soloveitchik suggests that Be’er Sheva “was the first home of the covenantal community, the center of spiritual life for the adherents of Abraham’s teaching. When Jacob left Be’er Sheva, he pulled away from this spiritual center. Perhaps he was frightened that if he left the home of his father and grandfather and the center of their teaching, he would also lose his role as leader and teacher of the covenantal community.”
Moreover, as much as Jacob needed Be’er Sheva, Be’er Sheva needed Jacob. As the Rav notes in a comment that echoes and explicates Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit (68:6): “When Jacob left, Be’er Sheva lost its glory. Once Jacob had gone, Be’er Sheva resembled Mount Sinai when the shofar sounded and the sanctity of the mount dissipated.”
Hence, according to the Rav, Jacob’s departure from Be’er Sheva had a two-fold effect: it created fear and anxiety in his psyche as to whether or not he would continue to be the “leader and teacher of the covenantal community,” and it diminished Be’er Sheva’s spiritual import for evermore. Based upon Hashem’s endless beneficence, however, its kedushah was not lost for all time, and instead, “found its home in the place that Jacob encountered on his journey from Be’er Sheva: the holy city of Jerusalem.”
Armed with the Rav’s penetrating analysis, the phrase, “and Jacob left Be’er Sheva,” undeniably takes on new and powerful meaning, for Jacob did far more than physically leave Be’er Sheva. In reality, absent Jacob, Be’er Sheva was transformed into just one more place on the map of ancient Israel and ceased to be the spiritual center of the nascent Jewish people.
With Hashem’s help, may we be zocheh (merit) to witness the coming of Mashiach, and the transference of Be’er Sheva’s ancient kedushah to the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem, soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.