Religious Life

The Well – Rosh Hashanah 5778

The Well
Rosh Hashana 5778 • Beth El Synagogue
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Once, a group of yeshiva students were traveling through the countryside on a hot summer day when all of a sudden they spotted a cool, fresh pond just on the other side of a fence. They jumped the fence, ran to the pond and plunged in. After a while of splashing and laughing, the owner of the property came out with a shotgun. “Hey, what are you doing in my pond? Didn’t you see the sign?”

“Yes, we saw the sign,” they replied. “Thank you so much.”

“What? Are you crazy? What are you thanking me for? Read the sign! It says, ‘Private Property. No swimming allowed.‘

The best Talmud student in the group spoke up and said, “Don’t be silly. That not what it says. It says, ‘Private Property? No! Swimming allowed!‘

Friends, this is not just a joke about the Jewish kopf or a lesson how to get away with trespassing. It is message about seeing new possibilities, gaining access to a wellspring of hope when the way appears blocked. And it’s a message we need now more than ever.

Recently, I met with my men’s study group. It’s a group of retirees who get together monthly to study. In our conversation, the sentiment was almost universal: we are living in scary times. They don’t fear for their immediate safety so much as for the wellbeing of the world in which their grandchildren are growing up.

Indeed, this has been a tumultuous year. From natural disasters to a nuclear North Korea, the latest tweet to the most recent terrorist attack, from racism to anti-Semitism, the issues are many. Each week seemed to bring a new crisis, take us to a new low.

Now, we’ve faced trials before. In the best of circumstances, confident in our leaders, we have come together to address our challenges. Today, I worry that neither condition exist- confidence in our leaders and coming together.

Regarding the latter, how often did Americans of both parties say to themselves on November 9, “I can’t believe this. I don’t know anyone who voted for…” At the most basic level, we can’t come together if we don’t know each other.

Regarding the former, why have we lost confidence in leadership? Among other reason, we are living at a time when ignorance is exalted, when to be anti-elite, anti-reason, anti-science is celebrated. Add to that the feeling of fear and helplessness, increasing anger, the power of social media, America’s declining educational systems that has us falling further and further behind other first world nations and you have an explosive, destructive combination. No wonder we have lost confidence in our leaders.

But let me be clear. I am not just talking about our leaders within the Washington beltway. Today, anyone who can write 140 characters and can generate a certain number of “likes” and “friends” has a leadership platform.

We need a wellspring of hope, a source of strength to help us navigate these turbulent times. Luckily, we are not the first generation to face great challenges. We are part of a people who have seen much worse and persevered. And we find strength and perspective turning to our biblical ancestors for guidance.

Alone in the desert, Hagar worries for herself but more importantly for her child, Yishmael, for his wellbeing and his future. The two were banished to wander the wilderness and fearing for the worst, Hagar sat down under a shade tree about to give up hope. Just then, God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. Vayifkach elohim et einha vateirah b’eir mayim (Gen 21:19). Blinded by fear and pain, she failed to see a source of salvation within sight. Then God preformed a miracle, not by creating a well where none had been before, but by opening Hagar’s eyes so that she could see the existence of life-sustaining resources at hand.

Now this is not the only time that a well makes an appearance in the Torah. Famously, Miriam’s well traveled with the Israelites for almost 40 years offering much needed nourishment for their desert journey. But wells do more than just supply water. A study in the Jewish Biblical Quarterly counts ten functions of wells in the Tenach (Hyman, vol. 34, no. 3, 2006). They are meeting places- think of Moshe and his wife, Tizppora, meeting at a well. They are places of cooperation- think of Jacob working together with shepherds to uncover a well to water their flocks. They are sources of conflict such as at the end of our Torah reading this morning where Abraham and Avimelekh dispute the ownership of wells later named Beer Sheva, the Well of Oaths.

But of all the functions of a well, I am most intrigued by the Tenach’s use of wells as metaphors. They are symbols of romance, of hope, of God and of learning. Here I want to pause.

To appreciate the metaphor of learning as a well, we need to understand how our ancestors captured and stored water in ancient Israel. There were two types of water storage systems. There was the bor and the be’er. The bor was a cistern, the precursor of the modern rain barrel at the bottom of our down spouts. A bor captured the run off from rain in a pit. Significantly, the bor was a closed system. Then, the water sat and stagnated. Once it was used up, the water was gone. A be’er, a well, on the other hand, was an open system. It was fed from an ever-flowing, ever-fresh, underground aquifer.

Given that background, we can now understand a mishna in Pirkei Avot in which Rabbi Yochanan offered praise of his students, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Eliezer was like a cistern. Rabbi Elazar was like a well.

Which student was more praiseworthy? Abba Shaul said, “If all the Sages of Israel were on one side of a scale including Eliezer the cistern, but Elazar the well was on the other side, Elazar would outweigh them all (2:8). (note: the mishna refers to a mayan, a spring, not a well, an even stronger metaphor.)

Yes, Eliezer the cistern had a phenomenal memory. He never lost a drop of learning. He never forgot his studies. But Elazar went beyond knowing a lot. Fresh waters inspired in him new thoughts, creative ideas, and a steady supply allowed him to share his learning with others.

Friends, too often we are a cistern when we need to be a well. And in our nation at large, there are too many are cisterns and not enough wells. We don’t lack for information. We lack for understanding and nuance. How often have we heard this year that we are living in a closed loop system? We read news that already fits our views. We skim Facebook posts that reaffirm our assumptions and confirm our biases. And so despite the mass of media, our world has actually gotten smaller.

We need an infusion of fresh perspective and ideas. Some do that by watching CNN and FOX, by reading about those “other” Americans in books like Hillbilly Elegies, or subscribing to yet another podcast. But I am suggesting that we turn to the wellspring of wisdom of Jewish tradition, wisdom that expands our thinking, deepens our understanding and embraces not flees from complexity.

I am not talking about learning a particular text but becoming text people, not about becoming intellectuals but becoming people eager to know more, to understand at a deeper level. This is the kind of learning for which Jews are known. It’s the kind of learning that answers a question with another question, the kind of learning that turns a problem around and around and examines it from all sides. It’s the kind of learning Rabbi Abraham Twersky described when he told about how his teacher would relish challenges to his arguments. In a heavily accented, broken English, the teacher would say, “You right! You 100 prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong.”

Where does this style to learning come from? As Jews, we believe that intelligence is God’s greatest gift to human beings. Where the Torah says we were created in God’s likeness, Rashi explains that God gave us the ability to understand and discern l’havein ulhaskil (Gen. 1:26). To learn, is thus to reveal the fullness of our humanity. No wonder that the first prayer we recite in the Amidah three times a day is a prayer for wisdom. No wonder that a Jewish parent’s highest priority is often their child’s education. It’s not about genes. It’s about values. And it goes all the way back to our parasha. (Inspired by Jonathan Sacks “Bo,” 5777)

There was Hagar, lost in a wilderness when God opened her eyes to see the well. The commentaries explain, “God expanded her range of vision” (Sforno). For Torah, opens our eyes and our minds (Sekhel Tov). Indeed, ours is a tradition that invites us to think critically, to listen deeply, to challenge assumptions and to see new possibilities saying, “No! Swimming allowed.”

Friends, we need a community well. We need it for two reasons- for community and for learning.

We need community, live and in person. The issues are too big for us to face on our own. We need each other, to rely on each other, to support each other. Therefore, we need a place to meet, a place to foster cooperation and to work through conflict. We need that so-called third place- beyond home and work where we gather. The coffee shop down the street is nice but really, it doesn’t create a close-knit community.

We need learning, live and in person. We need learning that brings us together as a community, across and beyond the Jewish community. More than ever, we crave insights to help us make sense of our increasingly complicated world. Therefore, we need learning that speaks to our lives, to the stuff we’re talking about around the water cooler at work and the dining room table at home. We need the kind of learning that combats narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness, that expands our horizons and encourages us to grow, learning that teaches us to see from multiple perspectives, learning that fosters curiosity, that embraces reason, learning rooted in ethics and that leads to holy living, learning that implants within us a heart of compassion. That is what it means to draw ancient wisdom to nourish our contemporary lives.

Today, writes Seth Siegel in Let there be Water, Israel has become a water superpower. From drip irrigation to desalination, it is teaching us how to survive in water-starved world. Along the way, it is strengthening cooperation between nations and is improving lives around the world.

I am here to say that if Israel is the water leader of the Middle East, Beth El can become the water leader of the Midwest. Such learning would enrich our passions and enlarge our perspectives, help us address our problems and overcome our pessimism. Indeed, we can nourish our lives and our society with the wisdom of Torah but only if each of us drinks from an ancient, ever fresh well.

I will tell you more about Beth El’s Community Learning @ THE WELL later in the service. For now, let me make one final observation.

At the conclusion of Shabbat when we make havdalah, we pray, “hinei el y’shuati eftach v’lo efchad, ki ozi v’zimrat ya vayahi li y’shua. God is my salvation. I am not afraid for God is my might.

This is a prayer for strength in difficult times. As Jews, we do not pray for salvation from sin as in the Christian tradition. We pray to be saved from poverty and pain, illness and ignorance, trials and troubles. And where do we look for salvation? The Targum Yonatan teaches, “you shall receive a new teaching in joy” as it says, “u’shavtem mayim b’sasson mimayanei hayeshua, you (plural) shall draw forth water in gladness from the well of salvation.”

As we enter 5778, we are called upon to renew our learning. I pray that words of Torah will be sweet in our mouths and a source of salvation in our lives guiding us to establish a world for our children and grandchildren of joy and of justice, of harmony and of holiness, of prosperity and of peace.