The Israelites journey through the desert continues this week in Parashat Chukat. Along the way, the Israelites come to a place called Be’er (meaning “well” in Hebrew).
There, in the middle of the desert, they discover a well, an unexpected source of water. An unexpected source of hope, sustenance, and healing. The moment awakens a song, “Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well, sing to it!” [Numbers 21:17]
Water was vital to the Israelites survival and as a result is a primary metaphor for the rabbinic imagination. About this well, the Sefat Emet, an 18th century Hasidic master, quotes Proverbs 5:15: “Drink water from your cistern (bor) and flowing water from your well (be’er). And he asks, “What is the difference between a cistern and a well? What is the difference between a bor and a be’er?”
The difference, on some level, is grammatical. It is the letter aleph. It barely even punctuates a soundless syllable. But for the rabbis, aleph is not just a letter. Just as The Holy One added the letter hey / ה to the names of Sarai and Abram, as part of their spiritual journey to become themselves, Sarah and Abraham. Aleph is the grammatical embodiment of Divinity which signifies the difference between a pool of water and a flowing well.
The Sefat Emet explains, “This is the difference between bor and be’er: the cistern just contains gathered water; its contents are limited by the size of the vessel that contains them.The well, on the other hand, is joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring.” Add an aleph to the word bor, and the cistern is transformed into a living well.
We too are living in desert times. This week we have seen the perpetuation of despicable violence and continued implementation of inhumane immigration policy. To maintain both our dignity and our stamina, we must find a way to become porous with our source so that the waters of justice can rise up and overflow.
When we open ourselves to the mystery, to something beyond language, to a force or a presence we might call Holiness, we have the potential to connect to the ever-flowing spring that lies at the heart of all life, to the deep waters that connect and sustain all.
In the words of the poet W.H. Auden,
In the deserts of the heart,
Let the healing fountain start.
This shabbat I invite you to join me in sending prayers of love and compassion to every hard-hearted person in government and on the border. May we all have the courage to (re)connect to the truth of our shared humanity, and may it nourish and sustain us through these trying years.
Rabbi Ari Lev