November 10, 2023
Be’er L’Chai Roi–Finding a Wellspring of Hope in Israel
Be’er L’Chai Roi–Finding a Wellspring of Hope in Israel
CHAYEI SARAH Israel trip 2023
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl
Long before there was JDate, or classified ads, or even yentes (matchmakers), when our people wanted to find love, they went to the well. The be’er—the ancient watering hole—was the place to see and be seen.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, when Abraham’s servant, Eliezar, is tasked with finding a wife for Isaac, he goes straight to the well. There he meets Rebecca, who is kind enough not only to draw water for him, but his camels as well. In future years, Isaac’s son Jacob meets Rachel at the well, Moses meets his wife Zipporah there. The well was literally the source of life’s renewal—in every way.
In a Torah portion that begins with Sarah’s death and ends with Abraham’s, the well figures prominently in our ancestors’ healing amidst the grieving, as Isaac marries Rebecca (from the well), and the parshah ends with them settling in a place called Beer (well) L’Chai (of life) Roi (I see)—Or, “the well of the vision of life.”
After October 7, it was impossible for me to read Chayei Sarah and not think of Be’eri, the kibbutz just a few kilometers from the Gaza border, one of the first and hardest hit, whose wells filled with blood and became an unimaginable vision of death.
Last week I went to Israel with a group of New York rabbis on a UJA mission to offer support, to bear witness, and to bring back stories. We visited survivors of Kibbutz Be’eri who have been evacuated to a hotel at the Dead Sea. This sleepy tourist area of about 1,000 residents has turned almost overnight into a temporary city of refuge for 15,000 evacuees from southern kibbutzim.
When we walked into the lobby of the hotel, which houses 900 Be’eri survivors, you first notice a table filled with candles, a makeshift altar to the 108 members of the kibbutz massacred in one day, and a wall filled with pictures—from babies to grandmothers—of the 30 Be’eri members held captive in Gaza.
We heard unimaginable stories from people who watched the slaughter of family members, neighbors, before their eyes. Who survived that day by hiding in safe rooms, holding the door handle for ten hours, while hearing guns and grenades surrounding them, certain the IDF was about to come, though they never came. They fled their homes with nothing— no clothes, not even a toothbrush. Two thousand Israelis are now refugees in their own country [and have been] for over a month.
But amidst this tragedy, you saw amazing generosity, resilience, and gratitude. For the hundreds of volunteers who have come round the clock to this makeshift refugee city to help—social workers, trauma specialists, yoga teachers, massage therapists—offering their services daily to thousands.
A master educator moved to the Dead Sea to set up 17 makeshift schools, one for each kibbutz, run by the best principals in the country who have come down to volunteer to run them.
In Jerusalem, which has 35,000 evacuees and Eilat which has 60,000, there is a similar core of volunteering and donating and cooking and babysitting, organized from these “situation rooms” run with the efficiency of a wartime effort. The selflessness and efficiency of Israeli civil society’s response has been astounding and inspiring.
We went to Har Hertzl, the military cemetery to attend the funeral of Lavi Lipshitz, one of the first soldiers to fall in Gaza. A thousand people were there, many of them people like us, who did not know the soldier, but attended the funeral as a way to honor the dead.
I could not see the family from my distance, but I could hear their broken voices recite Kaddish. When the skies opened up with a torrential thunderstorm, it was as if the angels themselves could not contain their tears.
We visited the home of Doron Perez in a yishuv outside Jerusalem. Doron’s son Yonatan is a soldier who was shot in the leg on Oct 7. His second son was commanding a tank and taken hostage. Yonatan was set to get married the week after the attack and the family could not decide how they could carry on with the wedding with their other son in captivity. But knowing that there is no stronger defiance of our enemies than to create new families, they proceeded with the wedding—a vision of life.
We sat with Doron and his son and daughter in their yard. Yonatan, now a newlywed, was dressed in his army uniform with his gun on his back, about to go back to his base. His father explained that Yonatan is exempt from serving now because his brother is in captivity—the IDF doesn’t want to add this emotional strain and risk to families. Through tears, Doron said proudly, “My son came to me to sign the waiver to override the exemption and go to the front. I said I didn’t want him to go. And he said, ‘You’re responding like a father, but this is the son you raised me to be–to protect our country.’”
The sense of gratitude for our visit was overwhelming, as was the sense of connection between our communities. I visited with a friend who is an Israeli rabbi and whose reserve duty is being a “casualty informer.” He has the excruciating and sacred task of knocking on the door to tell a family when their loved one has been killed. He has not been sleeping.
He turned to me and said: “I couldn't imagine myself flying anywhere during a war, except home. Thanks for showing and reminding me this is home for you too.” He sent me home with a jar of Israeli honey, inscribed Al Kol Eileh, so I would remember the sweet with the bitter of this trip.
It is hard to describe the grief, which hangs like a curtain over everything. And yet also the moral beauty that springs forth with such urgency from Israelis—exceptional acts of selflessness, generosity, kindness, unity, and sacrifice that filled my eyes to overflowing, over and over.
Like the story of Jack and Noam, who had two family members murdered on Oct 7 and three more held in captivity, including two teenagers. Noam introduced me to her 8-year-old daughter named Be’eri, and I raised my eyebrows, implying: Wow. That must be a complicated name to carry now. Noam smiled ruefully, saying that actually, she could not be more proud. And that since Oct 7, five babies born in Israel have been given the name Be’eri.
Is there anything that captures the spiritual defiance of Israelis more than this? That they would give newborns—right now—the name of a place that suffered unfathomable loss and reclaim the life-giving meaning of Be’eri, “my wellspring” which has sustained our people since ancient days.
Our parsha this week, Chayei Sarah, means the life of Sarah, but ironically begins with her death and ends with the death of Abraham. For Isaac, we would have understood his getting lost in grief and mourning. But instead he marries and settles by a well, by a source of life and renewal.
This is what it means for Jews to Choose Life.
Not when it’s easy, but when it feels impossible to do so. We will find Be’er L’Chai Roi—our own wellspring of the vision of Life.