WELL, WELL, WELL
Rabbi David Walk
When I first made aliya in the 80's, it was safe and relatively common to hike through Arab areas and even villages. In those days before Intifada I & II, the Arabs in the smaller villages were very friendly and even helpful. On one hike near Herodian in 1985, a villager saw us drinking from our canteens and brought cold water from his refrigerator. Such hospitality wasn't uncommon, but my point isn't just to reminisce about the 'good old days' before those bright red signs were installed warning us of imminent death if we follow the roads into Palestinian controlled areas. No, indeed, my point is that most of the villages in the Judean Hills had a spring or fountain on the outskirts of town, where young women would gather morning and evening to do domestic chores, like laundry, or draw water for the household. Often, on surrounding wooded hills were young men, and commonly marriages were arranged based on the scouting reports from the village water hole. But this article is not about anthropology. It's about the similarity with a few incidents in Chumash.
This phenomenon often reminded me of the Midrash: Three people found their spouses at a well: Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe. Concerning Yitzchak, it is written (Genesis 24:62), 'And Yitzchak came from the way of the well of Lechai-Roi.' Furthermore, Rivka had met Eliezer at a well. Concerning Yaakov: 'And he saw, behold, a well in the field.' Concerning Moshe: 'And he sat at the well (Shmot Raba.1:32).' This Midrash is elucidating the verse: Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water, and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks. But the shepherds came and drove them away; Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks (Exodus 2:16-17). We could easily assume that the Torah is reporting on events which are logical in a sociological and historical perspective. Perhaps, in our minds we should recast these stories with modern equivalents, like the water cooler or espresso machine. However, that kind of thinking would put rabbis out of work. The Torah is teaching us eternal verities, and our job is to discover the underlying principle.
To help understand the symbolism of the well in our stories, we must remember that in the Bible, there is a clear delineation between a bor, a hewn cistern or pit for storing water and a be'er, a well or source of water. In Isaiah (4:15) the bor is compared to sheol, probably Hell. In Jeremiah (2:13), the non-productive bor is compared to the gods of idolatry. In rabbinic literature, the bor is generally the unlettered person. On the other hand, the be'er, or well is the place of Divine revelation like the Be'er L'chai Ro'I for Yishmael which is also visited by Yitchak. In Numbers (21:17), the Jews sing a joyous song over the well, comparing its contributions to the splitting of the Sea. Covenants are agreed upon at wells. If water is compared to life, wells are idealized as the source of life, spirituality and knowledge.
In our parsha, the well in Padan Aram is a powerful symbol of Ya'akov's new found strength after the nocturnal encounter with the ladder at Beit El. It's significant that normally many people were required to uncover the treasures of the well, but the new Ya'akov can do it on his own. But what are these treasures or contributions to the world? The Sfat Emet (Reb Aryeh Yehuda leib Alter, Second Gerer Rebbe, 1836-1905) explains (BTW an explanation is a biur, same word) Ya'akov's first impression of the Be'er. The Rebbe notices that in the verse the same term hinei (usually translated as 'behold', but the connotation is 'notice'), is used for both the well and the three flocks surrounding it, therefore there must be three aspects to the significance of the well as a source for sanctity. Even though the Sfat Emet admits that there are many possible explanations, he avers that the most probable (mistama) symbolic threesome should cover the realms of place (olam), time (shana) and humanity (nefesh).
As a source for holiness in the world what place is the most logical candidate? The Rebbe opines that just as the well represents the aperture for accessing the life-giving water, the Beit Hamikdash is the interface for Divine access. It's not just our belief that prayers are delivered Heavenward through the auspices of the Holy Temple site, we also trust that God uses that space to provide Divine bounty for our realm.
What time frame provides spiritual nourishment to this world? According to the Rebbe, that is Shabbat. This is no surprise. The Rebbe often includes ideas about Shabbat in his Torah's. Shabbat for many Jews in the nineteenth century was the respite from a mostly miserable weekday existence. When the Eastern European Jew couldn't wait for Shabbat to begin and clung to it dearly every Saturday night, it was the clear candidate for temporal provider of holiness.
What is the fountain for spirituality to be found among living beings? The Rebbe declares that this well spring is the heart of every Jew. From that fountain flows Torah and ruchniyut, which emerges from the mouths of the Holy People. Just as the well has a mouth drawing from a rich reservoir within, so, too, the Jew can fulfill that role. But like the other sources in space and time, the Jewish heart must be uncovered to provide this rich bounty. Just as Ya'akov Avinu exerted almost super human strength to open the well mouth, our hearts require all our might to reveal the amazing treasures within.
Week after week during the reading of Breishit, we reacquaint ourselves with familiar and cherished stories of our beloved ancestors. We all have favorites and we all draw great delight in the retelling. But the true power of these tales, the true significance of these memorable accounts is that they really describe us and our lives. We must discover these ancestors in ourselves.