Wells of Seeing, Wells of Encounter

There is a place called the Everest Hotel. From the name you might think it is located in the Himalayas, or another exotic mountain location. In actuality, this Everest Hotel is a fairly nondescript hotel and conference center, with meeting rooms and a space to host gatherings. It is located in a town called Beit Jala, just outside of Bethlehem, in the area known to different people as the West Bank, Judea, or the Palestinian Territories. 

You wouldn’t know from looking at it, but the hotel has been the site of numerous encounters that couldn’t have happened just about anywhere else.  This hotel just happened to be located in Area C – an area of the West Bank that was accessible to both Israelis and Palestinians. It became a gathering place where former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian ex-Combatants came to talk to one another, to share their hopes and fears, and to dream about the future. 

Eden Fuchs and Ibrahim Issa met one another at these gatherings and have since become friends. Eden, a retired Israeli army colonel, says that he started coming to the Everest Hotel when he realized, at the age of 45, that he did not know any Palestinians. Ibrahim, was shot by an Israeli soldier at a demonstration when he was 14, and later came to embrace nonviolence. When asked how he came to trust Eden given their different histories and identities, Ibrahim “said that having a safe space at Hotel Everest opened their hearts to compassion and friendship.” (Rosgove, Film Review, Jewish Journal of Los Angeles).

The opportunity to gather together, to meet one another face to face, was life-changing. Through these gatherings, Eden and Ibrahim, and other Palestinian ex-fighters and former Israeli soldiers began to break down the barriers between them. In the sanctuary of the Everest Hotel, they gained an understanding of one another and began to envision a shared future. 

The Everest Hotel, this unassuming meeting place in the borderlands, became a site of transformation and possibility.

Our Torah reading for today begins with a different conflict, an intergenerational family drama. We open with the birth of Isaac, the long-awaited son born to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. But Isaac is entering into a family where there is already another child, Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Now that the child promised to Sarah and Abraham has arrived, Hagar and Ishmael have become a threat that Sarah can no longer tolerate.

After Isaac is born, Sarah and Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away into the wilderness, where Hagar fears her child will die of thirst. As she weeps, an angel once again calls to her, and assures her that God will make a great nation of Ishmael. The text continues: “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water – a be’er mayim.”

This is not the first time Hagar has encountered the divine presence at a well. When Hagar first became pregnant with Ishmael, she fled to the wilderness to escape Sarah’s resentment and abuse. Sitting at a spring of water, a messenger of God, an angel comforted her and promised her that her child, Ishmael, would grow into a great nation.

After this transformative experience she says to God – you are El Roi – the God who sees – who sees her, her suffering, and a path forward for her life. This place, the well where Hagar finds refuge and consolation, becomes known as Be’er-lachai-Roi – the well of the Living One who sees. 

In her moments of greatest need, a well is the site of transformation and renewal for Hagar. In the first instance, she found her way to this source of water, but needed to be found by the angel. In the story we read today, she is unable to locate the well on her own. It is only when God speaks to her and opens her eyes that she sees it, and is able to draw life-giving water for Ishmael and herself. 

Be’er-lachai-roi, the well of the living seeing God – makes another appearance, as a bookend to the story of this first family. 

Tomorrow, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the akeida – the binding of Isaac and his near-sacrifice by his father, Abraham. After that traumatic encounter, Isaac is silent. We never hear him speak to his father again. We don’t know if he sees his mother, Sarah, again before she dies. He disappears from the story. Isaac is not present when Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for him. 

Isaac’s silence is understandable. We can imagine Isaac after the akeida, in shock – alone in the desert, trying to make sense of what happened, grieving for his mother, angry at his father, struggling to redefine his faith. Where can he turn after this? 

The next time we find Isaac in the Torah, he is returning from Be’er-le-chai-roi (Gen. 24:62) – the very place that Hagar names, and perhaps where she and Ishmael settle when they are exiled. 

Why was Isaac in Be’er-lachai-roi? What did he hope to find there? Why is this place, the well with deep associations to his estranged half-brother and step-mother, the place that he turns to in his own grief and trauma?

The Torah doesn’t follow Isaac on his journey to the well, but we have a hint that he reconciles with Ishmael and Hagar there. Our ancient rabbis notice the gap in the story and offer a few possibilities of what could have occurred. The commentator Seforno suggests that Isaac had gone to Beer-Lechai-roi to pray, because he knew it was the place where Hagar’s prayer had been answered. He knew it was a place of divine encounter. 

A midrash says that perhaps Isaac goes to Beer-Le-chai roi to reconnect with Hagar and bring her home. Another interpretation, noting that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father Abraham when he dies, suggests that they had reconciled, with Ishmael recognizing Isaac as Abraham’s heir. 

Whatever may have happened, Isaac’s visit to Be’er-lachai-roi is transformative for Isaac and for his relationship with Ishmael and Hagar. Whatever may have happened in the past, whatever pain and hurt there may have been between them, they have found a way to move forward together.  And, after the burial, the Torah tells us that Isaac returns and settles near Be’er-lachai-roi. This place – once a place of exile, a place of seeing – is now where Isaac makes his home. 

It is not coincidental that this place, Be’er-lachai-roi – this well of living God who sees – is the place where Isaac and Ishmael are able to transform their relationship with one another. 

Throughout the Torah, wells serve as places of enormous transformative potential – this is the gathering place, to draw nourishment, to see and be seen. 

It is at a well where Abraham’s servant meets Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife;  where Jacob meets his beloved Rachel, where Moses encounters Tzipporah when he first flees from Egypt. The well is even imbued with mystical power – the ancient rabbis imagined that Miriam’s well, the vital source of water that sustains the people of Israel throughout their wanderings in the desert, was among God’s supernatural creations that have existed since twilight on the 6th day of creation. 

The well is a place of possibility, of revelation, of exchange. It is where we go to be restored, but it is also where we go to be transformed. And Hagar’s well, Be’er-lachai-roi, in particular seems to be a place of receptivity – that opens our eyes to new possibilities, to ourselves, to others, and to God. 

Perhaps this is what brings Isaac to Beer-le-chai-roi in his time of crisis. He needs to be seen – by God, and by other people, rather than just as the means by which Abraham’s faith is tested. And he needs to heal and to repair his relationships – with God and with his estranged family. 

What would it have been like for them to gather around the well? What do they need to say to one another? What does each of them need to hear? 

Let’s imagine the scene: They encounter each other face to face, perhaps for the first time since Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of their home. Isaac is carrying with him fresh trauma, but they have history. Given their history, Hagar and Ishmael might have been understandably cautious at first when Isaac arrives. But after a long, hot journey, they bring him to the well, to get a drink of water, to wash his feet and hands, as so many encounters between our spiritual ancestors begin. And it is there, gathered around the well, that they begin to speak. 

And experiencing his own trauma, perhaps Isaac is now able to see and engage with Hagar and Ishmael in a way he could not before- not only as antagonists, but as people who have also suffered, as strangers, who were cast out, but who have survived, built a new life, and have their own stories to tell. The well creates the opening, the receptivity, for Ishmael and Hagar to share their anger at being dispossessed and displaced/cast out, for Isaac to share his grief, his fear and trembling. For each of them to hear the other. And for all of them to be seen and understood by Hagar’s seeing God – who can see the innermost being of each of them and begin to draw it to the surface. Who, as we say during our holiday prayers, is able to see and reveal what each of us holds within our hearts. As a result of this meeting at the well, they are able to reconnect and repair their relationships, to take responsibility for any hurt they have caused, and then to move forward together from a place of shared understanding.

The well, then, is a gathering place, a place of incredible transformative potential. But where are our wells? 

Increasingly, these kinds of serendipitous social encounters happen less frequently. As technology and virtual connections have become central to our lives, and the pandemic has imposed physical separation and isolation on a mass scale, it has become easier than ever to keep our distance from one another. In isolation from one another, we risk not only loneliness as individuals, but social polarization into silos. When we do not have to actually engage with each other in a face-to-face encounter it becomes easier to project onto the other, and to forget our common humanity. 

During the holiday season, many of us, like Hagar and Ishmael, like Isaac, are looking for nourishment and connection. In this period of teshuva, of reflection and introspection, we are encouraged to be more receptive to seeing ourselves and others in new ways. 

But to allow for a real process of teshuva – of return, reconnection, and repair – to take place, we have to enter into a common space where we can engage with each other. We need a place where we can be real. We need to be able to look each other in the eye, to encounter each other as individual people, rather than as abstractions. 

We need more wells, and fewer walls.

We need more wells, and fewer walls. 

Wells may not happen on their own – we have to be intentional about creating them. 

Today, I am inviting you to join me in an experiment in imagining the space – virtual and physical – we have entered into together as our well – a place, in our fragmented world where we can take the risk of approaching each other with authenticity and openness. To tell our stories, to see and be seen, and to be moved toward a new understanding and shared purpose. 

We have each come here, like Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac traveling through the desert, for our own reasons –  to draw sustenance and inspiration, to grieve or to heal. We draw close to the well to replenish and renew, and I look up and see you standing on the other side. In that moment, without the armor we wear to protect ourselves, we see each other as we really are – fellow travelers, with our own journeys and wisdom to share.  I can’t wait to see you there.