The Tomb and the Well: Owning & Sitting

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow 11/21/2005

The story of Abraham's death ascribes power to two places, a tomb and a well:

Now these are the days and the years of Avraham, which he lived:
A hundred years and seventy years and five years, then he expired.
Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Makhpelah (Doubling) in the field that Abraham had acquired.
There were buried Abraham and Sarah his wife.
Now it was after Abraham's death, that God blessed Isaac his son.
And Isaac sat by the Well of the Living-One Who-Sees-Me.
(Gen. 25: 7-8a, 9-11.)

The tomb is "acquired"; at the well, one "sits" and "is seen." Let us explore the meanings of these two places, these two life-paths.

Almost the entire story of this tomb is about its acquisition. When Sarah died, Abraham bargained with Ephron the Hittite precisely to acquire the Cave of Makhpelah, lest it come to him purely as a gift. From Genesis 23: 3 to 23: 18, we hear about the dickering; then in one verse we learn that Abraham buried Sarah there, and in two verses -- Gen. 25: 9-10 -- we learn that Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham there.

In modern times, this acquisition has been cited as a model and prototype for Jewish ownership of the entire Land of Israel.

But on deeper reflection, this understanding is perplexing. Avraham began his bargaining by making clear that he is a ger v'toshav imakhem, a "sojourner-settler with you." He is not normally entitled to own land as a permanent holding for generations to come. He needs a special dispensation in order to acquire this property.

This is exactly the same formula with which YHWH explained in Leviticus 25: 23 that the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the Israelites are "gerim v'toshavim . . . imadi" - "sojourners-settlers with Me."

So Abraham was the model sojourner-settler, and his offspring were to learn that in this very land they are not to be owners but sojourners-settlers. Yet he acquired this particular piece of land, beyond reclaim. He did with this piece of land exactly what the God of Torah says must not be done -- and yet the Torah approves his acquisition.

How come? What is this "acquisition" for?

A grave. As if only the dead can "own" land; the living simply sojourn on God's land.

Owning rigidifies what had been fluid. Death rigidifies what had been fluid.
Now let us turn to the other aspect of the story. Isaac and Ishmael survived their dangerous father. Isaac went to live at the "Well of the Living One Who Sees Me."

Where did this Well come from? -- It was the fluid, flowing well through which "God hearkened" and saved his brother Ishmael's life, turning his name into a reality.

Hagar was the first of the Biblical figures to be connected with a well. This one, first rvealed to her when she was pregnant with Ishmael and feeling badly treated, was shown to her again just as Ishmael seemed at the point of death.

She had cast her son beneath a bush – a tiny oasis whose roots must have gone deep to find a source of water. She hopes the bush will keep the sun from scorching him. (The "casting" is from "tashlich," the word that means not throwing trash away but, like Jonah when God cast him into the sea, means being placed where the future can be transformed.)

Hagar closed her eyes, for she was unwilling to see her son die.

She cried, and her eyes poured tears into the earth.

And then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water that she gave to Ishmael .

Surely this was once again the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, which she had first seen years before when her own body could give Ishmael his nourishment.

And surely it was her tears themselves, falling into the earth, that gave rise to this wellspring.

Perhaps Hagar closed her eyes not in resignation but in a direct challenge:

Refusing to see her son so as to force God to see him -- to open the Well of Seeing that she had seen so many years before. And so God does.

Refusing to hear her son so as to force God to hear him as she had been promised long ago.

And indeed God Heard and saved their lives, watering their future as Hagar's eyes had watered earth and God's own self. "Va'yishma elohim!" "Yishma'el" becomes his name in fact as well as in truth.

It is there, at the Well of the Living One Who Sees me, that after they come together to mourn the father who had endangered both his sons, the son of Hagar ("The Stranger") can live at last with the son of Sarah ("Queen").

And what does Isaac do? "Vayeshev," he sat there. (Gen. 25: 11) He did not need to wander, he did not need to own. Like a practitioner of Zen, he sat.
He let YHWH see him.

If we the living give up our attachment to the rigidity of acquiring, we can sit calmly to drink at the flowing wells of vision.

The burial of Abraham where Sarah was buried calls us back to recall the story of Sarah's death. She died just after the naming of another sacred place of Seeing: Abraham names the mountain where he bound Isaac for sacrifice "YHWH Sees." According to Jewish tradition, though it is not specified in the Hebrew Bible, this hill long afterward, became the place where the Temple was built and burned, rebuilt and burned again.

And today it is one of those sacred places whose "ownership" has swallowed many deaths.

Many years ago, the Jewish sages decreed this place not one we are supposed to physically inhabit, but a place we are supposed to physically avoid. We taught ourselves that our most sacred place is one we do not "own" and cannot even put our foot on.

Why? Because we might inadvertently step into that space where once there was the Holy of Holies, the deepest inner aspect of the Temple. Why not do this? Because the Holy of Holies itself was a place to be entered only by one person for one moment every year; the High Priest, at noon on Yom Kippur.

Our non-ownership was holy. This was a radical critique of idolatry. It teaches about space – don't try to own it! -- what Shabbat teaches about time.

This wisdom of not-owning and of staying off the Temple Mount in effect expanded the Holy of Holies, defining the entire Temple Mount as the Holy of Holies and Mashiach, Messiah, as the one "high priest" who could someday enter it.

Of course we cannot do without land altogether. We are creatures of body, who at our healthiest must have a Land to "sit" in, a well to drink from, a brother or sister to see us. How can this be done without "acquiring" the Land?

By sojourning and sitting, like Father Abraham and Tante Hagar, and like Isaac when God came at last to bless him.

How do we "sit"? By treating the land with loving respect, living not on its back but beside its well of life, encouraging its flow instead of draining its wetlands, or pouring poison into its rivers, or (like modern Israeli settlers on the West Bank) using scarce water for swimming pools instead of letting it flow to Tante Hagar's kitchen.

For exile, alienation, estrangement, cannot be solved by acquiring, possessing, owning -- by rigidity. It can only be eased by acknowledging that possessiveness is itself a form of exile. By letting the water trickle through our fingers.

And by letting the water trickle through our eyes. Through grief.

The grief of two brothers at their father's grave is connected with the grief that Hagar and Ishmael had felt so many years and tears before. There was a reason that Isaac moved directly from his father's grave to the well where tears had given life.

The tears had came from Hagar's opening her eyes to see the truth, and the open eyes came straight from God.

Indeed, the Well of Seeing stood alongside a Mount of Seeing, where grief had also been poured forth.

For when Abraham took an even more direct hand in threatening the life of his other son, Isaac; when at the last moment Abraham heard a messenger from God commanding him to let the boy live; when according to rabbinic midrash Isaac had already been blinded by the tears of the angels pouring into his eyes -- Abraham too lifted his eyes, he too saw.

Just as Hagar had named the well for Seeing, Abraham named the place "YHWH Sees" and it became known as the Mountain of YHWH Seeing (Gen. 21).

These stories of Isaac and Ishmael are obviously intertwined and echoed. In our generation, some have suggested that this echo is meant to convey that God's test of Abraham in regard to Isaac emerges from Abraham's behavior toward Ishmael. He expressed concern, but not conviction, when the moment came to spare Ishmael his ordeal. And so he himself had to create the ordeal for his other son. Not just the stories but the fates of the two sons are intertwined.

The fullness of the prophecy that Ishmael will ultimately live facing all his brothers was not lived out until after Abraham, the father who would have allowed both sons to die from his own actions, has himself died.

That was when Abraham's sons Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury him (Genesis 25: 9-11). Indeed, only in this passage are they named together as "Abraham's sons," as if to teach us that they became truly his sons -- and together -- only by joining in their grief (or relief? or both?)

Only after that are they able to live face to face with each other; only then the prophecy comes true in which Ishmael is to live "facing all his brothers." (Gen. 25: 18).

The two are able to live together only after they have mourned the most dangerous and threatening person in their lives.
Now -- what does this weave of text and midrash have to say about today, about grief, about mourning, about the lethal violence between the families of Abraham in our own generation?

In the last century, both peoples have experienced disastrous abuses of their peoplehoods - the Shoah (Destruction), the Naqba (Disaster). We do not have to measure one against the other to know that each left deep wounds and scars, yet unresolved, on the soul of each people.

And so we see that two abused peoples, still suffering, are thrown into conflict with each other. For each, an act that in its own eyes seems defensive is seen by the other as abusive.

Each grieves its own dead, killed at the other's hands.

We might draw a lesson from the shared grief of Isaac and Ishmael, and the release it gave them to face each other. Can Jews and Palestinians together share feelings of grief about the deaths of members of our two peoples at the hands of the other -- at the hands of those who are dangerous and threatening to each of our peoples?

Indeed, there has arisen a prophetic and pioneering group of Palestinians and Israelis who together mourn the deaths of their children, their sisters and brothers, their parents – killed by someone from the other people.

They mourn together and they work for peace, against the hatred that consumes those in either people who mourn only the deaths in their own family and turn their grief into rage.

So Jewish and Arab or Muslim groups might, ideally, come together to express publicly their grief at all these deaths. Where joint ceremonies cannot be arranged, let them do this separately.

And where even this cannot be arranged, where one community or congregation will not agree to mourn the dead of another, let those who will mourn the dead of the other go ahead and do so.

Among Jews, one appropriate and important time might be on Yom Kippur, after the ten days in which we are to do tshuvah -- turn our lives in more just, peaceful, and holy directions.

The traditional Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning includes a passage in which the High Priest sends one goat out into the wilderness (like Ishmael in the story we traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah), and sacrifices another -- on the same mountain where according to tradition, in the other Rosh Hashanah story Isaac was bound for sacrifice.

These two goats echo Isaac and Ishmael. The goats can be seen as our Yom Kippur act of tshuvah -- No, we will not do this to human beings, only to goats. And then we stop doing it to goats as well; we tell only the story.

And now on Yom Kippur, we could take one more step toward tshuvah. To the reading about the goats, we could add -- or even substitute -- as a Torah reading the passage about Abraham's death. (For synagogues where this seems halakhically or liturgically difficult, the passage could be read as "study," not from the Torah Scroll.)

And immediately after reading it, the congregation could read the names of BOTH Palestinians and Jews, BOTH Iraqis and Americans, who have been killed in the conflict of the past years.

Then there could be congregational discussion in a Torah-study atmosphere about how this passage bears on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This reading could be followed by either the full Mourners Kaddish or just the last paragraph of Mourners Kaddish (to distinguish this from the Kaddish said in memory of one's closest beloveds).

In the Oseh Shalom paragraph, after "v'al kol Yisrael," the phrase "v'al kol Yishmael v'al kol yoshvei tayvel" could be added. -- "May there be peace/ harmony for all Israel and all Ishmael and all who dwell on the planet" -- that is, for the Jewish people, and for the Palestinian and all Arab and Muslim peoples, and for all endangered human cultures and all endangered species on the earth.

When either community mourns the deaths only of those on "its side" who have been killed by those on "the other side," the outcome is often more rage, more hatred, and more death. If we can share the grief for those dead on both "sides," we are more likely to see each other as human beings and move toward ending the violence.

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