Many of the details mentioned in the stories recounted in Sefer Bereishis seem to be irrelevant or inconsequential. Why do we need to know how many wells were dug by our forefathers or exactly who prepared the food for the heavenly visitors to Avraham's tent? What is the significance of the Torah telling us about Avraham's travels through the land of Canaan or where he went when there was a famine in the country?
The Ramban in this week's parsha addresses this exact question: "I will explain to you a general rule regarding all the upcoming parshios that deal with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Everything that happened to our forefathers is symbolic of what will occur to their children. Therefore, the Torah relates at great length the travels, the digging of the wells and the other various occurrences. One might think that these stories are unnecessary, while in reality they were all written to inform us of what will happen in the future" (Bereishis 12, 6). For example, the Ramban (ibid. 26, 20) explains how the three wells dug by Yitzchak symbolize the three Batei HaMikdash that will exist over the course of time.
Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) elaborates on this idea. In order for a tree to grow one must plant a seed in the ground. The type of tree is determined by which seed was planted and how it took root. Just as this concept is true with regard to the physical world, it applies to the spiritual realm as well. The Avos are not only our roots in a physical sense, they are also our spiritual roots because every action of theirs was carried out with the intention of creating a spiritual nation. Their actions are the seeds, and the sprouts that grew out of those seeds can be perceived through what has occurred to the Jewish People in the course of history.
When Bilam planned to curse Bnei Yisrael, his intention was to annihilate them by destroying their roots. For this reason he had seven alters built, since he wished to rival the seven mizbeichos that were erected by our Avos. However, he was unsuccessful in his attempts, as he himself stated: "I look at their beginnings and their roots and I see that through the actions of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs their foundations are concrete like mountains and hills" (Rashi to Bamidbar 23, 9).
Although the Avos succeeded greatly in their endeavors, nevertheless, they had the ability to do even more. Chazal tell us (Bava Metzia 85a) regarding Avraham's hospitality toward the three malachim that every action he performed personally garnered a reward that was performed by Hashem Himself, while every action that Avraham performed through an emissary garnered a reward that was performed by an emissary of Hashem. Additionally, a few pesukim later in this week's parsha (ibid. 12, 10) the Ramban writes that because Avraham did not place complete faith in Hashem that He would sustain him in the time of famine, and left the country in which he had been commanded to reside, his offspring suffered the exile in Mitzrayim!
Chazal tell us that it was because Avraham took along Talmidei Chachomim when he waged war against the Four Kings, that his descendants became slaves in Mitzrayim for two hundred and ten years. What should Avraham done differently? How could he fight mighty armies with a handful of warriors? It seems that Avraham who was planting seeds with every action, could have done even more, thereby changing that which would sprout from his actions.
How does all this apply to us? Firstly it gives us a new appreciation of every single word written in the Torah. Additionally, there are instances when we too have the ability to plant seeds for the future. Every Rosh Hashana plants the seeds for the following year and during those two days we must be extra careful with our behavior. Finally, this knowledge gives us an incentive to strive for greater heights. If the Torah tells us that even Avraham could have done more, then most certainly we can do more. Perhaps if we take a look at how much Rav Ovadya Yosef zt"l accomplished in his lifetime, we will get an appreciation of what a single person can accomplish. Yehi zichro baruch.