The Stone That Covers Our Wells

The clearest understanding of the gift of the High Holy Days came to me from an old Hasidic commentary from the late 19th century by Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (Sefat Emet). The author presents a familiar biblical story, and with an astonishing insight for his time, interprets it as a key to understanding the mysteries of the human psyche.  What seemed to be a simple story turns, in his brilliant brain, into a deep psychological idea when the term psychology was hardly known.

One of such stories was the prelude to the romantic meeting between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob was forced to run away from his family after deceiving his blind father and stealing the blessing from his older (and much stronger) brother, Esau. On his way to his destination, his uncle Laban’s house, Jacob stopped by the local well. To his surprise, the shepherds, who had congregated at the well, were standing idly, unable to water their flock because of a big stone that was covering the well. The boulder had been placed there to prevent evaporation and the fall of undesired objects into the clean cold water. However, this big rock prevented the shepherds from using the well until enough of them got together to remove it. Seeing the shepherds’ incompetence, Jacob was able to remove the huge rock on the well by himself.

The Sefat Emet found this technical account to be a crucial element in the way human beings act.

This reality—the well in the field—is found in every thing and in every one of us. Every thing contains a life-giving point that sustains it. Even that which appears to be as neglected as a field has such a hidden point within it.

The well is much more than a cistern filled with water. It represents the source of everything that enables life and makes life worth living. The stone symbolizes all the things that obscure our vision and hinder our access to the spring of life. Objectively, we have so much to be grateful for, so many reasons to love life and appreciate every one of its moments, but we first must remove the stone. Jacob’s success was a result of his ability to concentrate all his mental and physical strength and remove the stone blocking the well.  

So often we are like the shepherds. We stand at the mouth of the well. We know what’s inside and how much we can benefit from it, but the stone is just too heavy for us to lift. Sometimes we master the strength to move the stone only a few inches, so what we see is a few drops of water, rather than an unending flow. The stone is all the negative emotions we harbor that cloud our souls.

Take anger for example. Angry people find it very hard to enjoy life. They are angry at the life that didn’t unfold the way they envisioned it in their youth; they are angry at their children who failed to provide them with a portal to the life they had always dreamed of but couldn’t get; they are angry at friends who didn’t live up to their lofty standards of loyalty and support; and of course they are angry at God for allowing the world to be so far removed from perfection.

Or envious people who spend so much energy focusing on how much their neighbors’ lives are so much better than theirs, that all they can see is a dry well. Others’ boulder is their tendency to fret over regrets of the past and to be anxious about the challenges that the future may bring. On some extreme occasions, the stone could be a severe depression that makes the effort to move it even so much harder.

Here is what I believe to be the essence of Jewish belief: God will not remove the stone for us, no matter how much we pray or cry. But when we begin to move the stone, even just a few inches, then God, just like He did for Jacob, will push it with us, until the life-giving water of our wells are fully exposed and we are able to drink it.

B'shalom.