Jewish History Blog

The Philistines and the Polio Vaccine

Jonas Salk discovers the vaccine for polio. (photo courtesy of

The key to understanding Isaac and the other forefathers is that their lives were portents of what will happen to the Jewish people. Their lives are not just historical events, but patterns upon which future Jewish history will follow.

And although each of the forefathers is indicative of what would happen to the Jewish people, it can be argued that Isaac more than the others contains all of the elements of Jewish history, at least where it concerns the Jewish people in the long night of their exile.

For example, the Bible tells us that he came to a strange country and began digging wells (Genesis 26). Water was the most precious of all commodities in the Middle East. Nothing was of greater value. Isaac found water. In a time of drought he brought prosperity to the land.

And, yet, the Philistines stopped up his wells! Better to have drought than “Jewish” water, they reasoned.

Hatred is illogical… and not limited to the ancient Middle East. After 1967 war, the Israeli army discovered a warehouse in East Jerusalem filled with cases polio vaccine. On the boxes it said, “A gift from the people of the United States.” It had been donated to Jordan. However, the Jordanians did not use it even though polio existed and there even was an epidemic there two years before. The reason they refused to use the donation was because the man who discovered it, Jonas Salk, had been a Jew. Better Jordanian children should have polio than admit that they benefitted from Jews.

Similarly, the Philistines with the water.

Not only did they stop up the wells, but they accused Isaac of stealing their wealth and expelled him from their midst. “You became wealthy from us” (Genesis 26:16), Abimelech, the Philistine king, told Isaac. It is our money you have taken. Leave, you made too much money off of us. The fact that you, Isaac, have developed the country — if not for you our land would have been barren and backwards – makes no difference. Be thankful that we are letting you leave with your life, the Philistine told him.

Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinates a child. (photo courtsy of

Is that not the story of the Jewish people throughout its long exile? Jews nurtured and help develop every society they have been in, enriching it in every facet of life: Nobel prizes, atomic energy, medicine, music, art, etc. Nevertheless, invariably the day came when the host country told them, “Leave! We do not want you any longer.”

That is a very powerful lesson, something that has been repeated many times in Jewish history. It is foreshadowed in the life of Isaac.

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Posted in:
Bible/ Tanach
Rabbi Berel Wein
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  • November 1, 2010

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