There is something about deserts. It seems we’ve always known that. Our history, literature, and religious texts are replete with desert experiences that shape people and societies. People and prophets have walked the deserts seeking solace, answers, solitude, and more.
Science fiction author Frank Herbert created an entire universe which revolves around a desert planet:
Arrakis … Dune … wasteland of the Empire, and the most valuable planet in the universe. Because it is here — and only here — where spice is found. The spice. Without it there is no commerce in the Empire, there is no civilization. Arrakis … Dune … home of the spice, greatest of treasure in the universe. And he who controls it, controls our destiny.
Deserts fascinate us. I can still remember the stunning visual images of desert that graced the giant CinemaScope screen upon which I first saw “Lawrence of Arabia.” The joke at the time had been that the images were so realistic and awe inspiring that they caused long lines at the water fountains in the cinemas.
Which leads me to the subject of the preciousness of water in a desert environment, and eventually to the subject of wells. It’s no wonder that wells figure prominently in many of the stories we read in Torah. In this week’s parasha, in close proximity, we read of two wells. The first is the one that is revealed to Hagar that enables her and Ishmael to survive. The second, the well that Abraham reclaims from Avimelekh – a well that Abraham claims to have dug. As surety to Avimelekh that he is being truthful in his claim to be the owner of that well, he asks Avimelekh to accept seven ewes. Thus the name of the well, Beer-sheva, the well of seven.
Abraham was a wealthy man, and could easily afford to offer seven ewes as a bond of truth, yet it is nonetheless a significant gesture, indicating the importance and values of wells.
A more interesting lesson about wells might be derived from the story of Hagar. She has been thrown out of the camp by Abraham at the insistence of Sarah (sort of lowers their esteem in your eyes, doesn’t it?) with only some bread and a skin of water, which are quickly exhausted. She sets Ishmael down and moves away from him in the hopes that he might die out of her sight, so desperate is her plight.
In a delightful literary twist, we read first that, having left her son to due, Hagar bursts into tears. In the very next verse we read that G”d heard the cry of Ishmael, and then, through an angel, calls out to Hagar. There is no mention previously of Ishmael crying, though it is certainly likely that a thirsty, hot baby, left abandoned by its mother, would be crying.
However, the seemingly logical thing would be for the text to read that G”d heard Hagar’s crying and spoke to her through the angel. Yet the angel reiterates the point that G”d has heard the cry of Ishmael, and that G”d is responding to that.
However, there’s yet another literary twist here which complicates things. Before telling Hagar that G”d has heard Ishmael’s cries. the angel’s opening line is “What troubles you, Hagar?”
Is this G”d’s subtle way of saying to Hagar “you gave up too easily, and should not have abandoned the boy” ? Is this G”d telling Hagar, “look, dummy, there’s a well right over there and you were to busy feeling sorry for yourself and your son that you completely missed it” ? (Sort of like that well worn joke where G”d says to the man complaining about his death in a flood while waiting for G”d to rescue him “But I sent you a boat, a helicopter…”)
Even more intriguing than this is the very fact that G”d seems to have enough interest in Hagar to ask her what troubles her. G”d actually cares that Hagar is troubled? Is this some newly sensitized G”d, having been taken to task by Abraham over G”d’s intent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, trying to give more attention to human concerns? (when pondering this, consider that G”d went ahead and destroyed the two cities. By implication G”d could not find even ten good people within them, but the Torah is certainly not explicit about that point, and I wouldn’t put it past G”d to fudge on the agreement with Abraham. (G”d did it after the flood, first promising to never destroy the earth, and then adding later the caveat “by flood.”)
In the Dune universe, the existence of a desert planet allows for a species of sand-dwelling animal to evolve into a worm species that produces a substance that enables inter-stellar travel. Just as we find in Torah, the Dune universe has its contradictions, and it remains unclear whether the desert created the sandworms (and thus the spice melange required for interstellar travel) or the sandworms (in their earlier forms) created the desert.
Consider, for a moment – G”d floods the earth – an overabundance of water is responsible for the death and destruction of all species (including humans except for Noah’s line.) Then, in subsequent developments, G”d seeks out the inhabitants of a largely desert and wilderness region with whom to communicate and eventually create a covenantal relationship. Coincidence?
We will, in the course of our year-long journey through the Torah, encounter many other wells, and situations which bespeak of the power of the desert to shape, refine, strengthen and provide insight. We will learn to see water with the same reverence as that of the Fremen of the planet Dune/Arrakis. We will learn that wells and water are not solely the province of men.
The Shabbat bride is almost here. While wine is nice, maybe have a glass of water ready to offer her. As she comes into your life to sweeten your Shabbat, here’s a great conversation starter:
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayera 5771 – Density
Vayera 5770 – Not Even Ten?
Vayeira 5769 – He’s a Family Guy (?)
Vayera 5767-Revised 5759-Whoops! (or Non-Linear Thinking)
Vayera 5766-The Price of Giving
Vayera 5765-From the Journal of Lot Pt. II
Vayera 5762-Plainly Spoken
Vayera 5760/5761-More From the “Journal of Lot”
Vayera 5759-Whoops! (or “Non-Linear Thinking?”)
Vayera 5757-Technical Difficulties