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The Well of Grief

When a community comes together to dig the well of grief, streams of life-giving water can flow from the depths

Jewish texts abound with wells. In the dry seasons of the ancient Near East, no less than in today’s Israel, access to water defined the viability of life, both for the people and the flocks and crops they tended. The well or spring, a source of life-giving fresh water bubbling up from deep within the earth, serves as the fulcrum for many key moments in the Torah narrative. 

In Genesis, Hagar, cast into the desert and dying of thirst with her son Ishmael, is saved when God reveals to her a well of water. Abraham cuts a deal with Avimelech over the well at Beersheva (literally the “Well of Seven”), offering up seven ewes to secure his water rights. Isaac, Jacob and Moses all find their wives at wells, while Isaac must re-dig the stopped-up wells his father Abraham had dug long ago to reclaim his patrilineal heritage of blessing and peace. More than a physical locus, the well is a resonant symbol of connection, transformation and blessing, the nexus where love blossoms, marriage matches are made, treaties are struck and revelation unfolds. 

Perhaps the most fascinating and mysterious of all the biblical wells is Miriam’s Well, the spring of fresh water that accompanies the Israelites on their long wilderness sojourn. This miraculous well, said by the sages to have been one of ten supernatural things created by God at twilight on the eve of the very first Shabbat, follows the people thanks to the merit of Miriam, the midwife and prophetess, dancer and drummer, revered elder sister of Moses and co-leader of the people. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Miriam dies in the wilderness of Zin and, inexplicably, the people do not mourn her. Instead, they grouse and rebel against Moses and Aaron, their remaining leaders, because suddenly there is no water. The fabulous well has disappeared.

Reading this story year after year, I often wonder what might have happened if the people had taken time to mourn, to grieve the loss of their beloved leader and all the losses they sustained through their many years of wandering — the plagues, the punishments, the people incinerated on the altar of God and swallowed up by the earth. If they, along with Moses and Aaron, had been able to deeply feel the pain of all they had lost, to mourn the whole generation that had emerged from the slave houses of Egypt only to die in the wilderness, to truly let their hearts break, maybe the well would have continued to flow, fed by streams of their tears of anguish and sorrow.

Instead, the people become belligerent in their demand for water. And Moses responds in kind, angrily calling them out as rebels and striking a rock in frustration rather than speaking gently, faithfully, as God has instructed him. In his anger, his dishonoring of God’s word, Moses seals his own fate; he too will die in the wilderness, barred from entering the land of promise with this people he has carried so far for so long.

Like the ancient Israelites, we don’t always take the time and space we need to mourn our dead, our lost dreams. Jewish mourning practices wisely follow the example of the biblical patriarch Abraham, who comes to sit with the body of his beloved wife Sarah when she dies, telling the story of her life and wailing in grief. 

Traditionally, mourners stay at home for seven days after the burial, sitting close to the floor, silent or weeping or speaking as needed, remembering and telling stories of their loved one, nourished and held in the embrace of community. They stay close to home for another three weeks, taking time to gradually feel their way into this new, emptier world, absent the physical presence of their beloved. Each day, supported by a minyan of at least ten fellow pray-ers, they recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, reaffirming faith in the face of loss.

Perhaps by the time of Miriam’s death, the Israelites were too stressed, too traumatized to open to the pain of one more loss. Yet the proverbial well does reappear later in our Torah portion, summoned this time not by a single charismatic leader, but by the whole community:

Then Israel sang this song:
Rise up, O well! Chant her up!
Well that the princes dug, that the willing people carved out …
A gift from the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for well, b’eyr, comes from a verb root that means to make plain or distinct, to clarify. When a community comes together to dig the well of grief, streams of life-giving water can flow from the depths, fed by their tears, called forth by their song. Then clarity and balance can gradually return, gifts from the wilderness of grieving. 

We grieve because we love. In this time of great stress and unspeakable loss, may we take the time to mourn, to hold one another in our grief, so that love and hope can once again well up in our hearts.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on July 13, 2024. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here. 

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