DON’T BE A PHILISTINE
To call someone a philistine today is to label them as indifferent to culture and the arts. [The usage seems to have originated from a conflict between the cultured university students and the townspeople in 17th century Jenna, Germany.]
The original Philistines are referred to in this week’s parasha. We encounter them stopping up the wells that Abraham had dug. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (the great twentieth century communicator of Torah who died a year ago) makes the observation that we never find that the Philistines poisoned any wells. They simply sealed them. Sitemum. (Bereishit 26:15.) They stopped the access to fresh, invigorating water.
Biblical philistinism, says Rabbi Steinsaltz, is the attitude of sitemum, blocking up. In Israel today in Ivrit (Modern Hebrew) the word, stam, is a verbal shrug. “Don’t care.” “Can’t be bothered to engage.” If someone asks a question or offers an exciting idea, the simplest put-down is the shrug. Stam. To be a biblical philistine means that when someone presents an inspiring or meaningful point, you immediately fill it with earth. This is a contagious phenomenon. If the questioner is rebuffed then, sooner or later, he or she stops asking questions.
We are all at risk of becoming philistines if we stop questioning and passively accept the status-quo. Even the person who is religious – prays three times a day and strictly observes Shabbat and Kashrut – if there is no novelty and excitement in what he or she is doing, then rote-like observance will lead to boredom and disenchantment.
The challenge is to be an Isaac and re-dig the wells and to banish the insidious growth of stam. Ask questions. Don’t accept explanations that don’t seem to make sense. Dig down deeper.
The first commandment in the Torah is “to be fruitful and multiply.” However, not everybody will be blessed with the circumstances to have children. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (died 1813, Likutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 38d) writes that there is a spiritual component of procreation, that potentially, everyone can access. One can be “fruitful and multiply” in the spiritual realm, generating new ideas, discovering new insights. Every day offers the opportunity to give birth to a new Torah thought.
Never stop asking “why?” Only a philistine accepts the answer, “that’s just how it is.” A Jew must constantly dig wells.