What makes a place holy?
The word for “holy”, kadosh, means separated from mundane use, dedicated to God, or simply inspiring religious awe. Kadosh appears only once in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, in verb form, when God blesses the seventh day of creation and makes it holy. The word does not show up again until the book of Exodus/Shemot, when Moses stops to look at the burning bush, and God tells him to take off his shoes, because the place where you are standing is holy ground (Exodus 3:5). Later in Exodus, Mount Sinai becomes holy ground for a whole people. Eventually the Bible names Jerusalem as a holy city.
Even though there are no places called kadosh, “holy”, in the book of Genesis, there many sites where God makes first contact with a human being. At two of the locations where God speaks to a human, the human dedicates the spot, and later someone returns to the same place to connect with God. These places, Be-eir Lachai Ro-i and Beit-El, must surely count as holy!
Isaac and his bride Rebecca meet in a field next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (“Well for the Living One Who Sees Me”) in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”). But it is Hagar, an Egyptian, who first encounters God there.
When Abraham and his wife Sarah leave Egypt in the Torah portion Lekh-Lekha (“Go for Yourself”), Hagar goes with them as Sarah’s servant. Sarah gives Hagar to her husband for the purpose of producing a child Sarah can adopt. But once Hagar is pregnant, Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away across the Negev Desert, back toward Egypt. A messenger of God finds her at a spring, a watering-place by the road. God speaks to Hagar through the messenger and convinces her to return to Abraham and Sarah.
And she called the name of God, the one speaking to her: You are the God of Ro-i; for she said: Even as far as here, I saw after ro-i! Therefore the be-eir is called Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 16:13-14)
ro-i = seeing me, one who sees me.
be-eir = well, watering-place.
lachai = for the living one.
For Hagar, accustomed to being a pawn in Sarah’s schemes, the most amazing thing is that God actually notices her—and she survives. Hagar does return, and gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah adopts Ishmael, but later bears her own son, Isaac, and sends Hagar and Ishmael into exile.
Isaac is 40 years old before the Torah once again mentions Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. At this point, Isaac is estranged from his father. In last week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“And He Saw”), Abraham bound Isaac as a sacrificial offering, and raised the knife to his son’s throat before a voice from God called him off. After that, Isaac did not go home with his father. In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham buries Sarah, Isaac’s mother, without Isaac’s presence. Then he arranges for Isaac to marry an Aramean without even informing his son. Apparently they are not on speaking terms.
Abraham lives in Beersheba (Be-eir Sheva), and Isaac lives farther south, in the Negev Desert.
And Isaac, he came from coming to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i, and he himself lived in the land of the Negev. And Isaac went out lasuach in the field, in the face of the sunset; and he raised his eyes and he saw—hey! Camels were coming. (Genesis 24:62-63)
lasuach = to ?? (This is the only occurrence of the word in the Bible, and though it is in the form of an infinitive verb, scholars do not agree on its meaning. Lasuach has been translated as to stroll, to pray, to supplicate, and to meditate. It might be a variant spelling of the verb siyach = meditate, go over a matter, contemplate something.)
I like the literal translation he came from coming to; it emphasizes that a holy well is a place you come to. Isaac is avoiding his father, but he comes to the well where God noticed and spoke to Hagar. Since he has no intention of traveling to Egypt on the road that runs past the well, he must come there because he knows about Hagar’s experience.
Like Hagar, Isaac is used to being overlooked as a person, accustomed to being a pawn in his father’s schemes. Maybe he hopes that God will notice him at Hagar’s well, or maybe he hopes he will be able to see himself.
Coming from the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me, Isaac heads out into the field at sunset to lasuach. Maybe Isaac senses the holy presence of God at the well, and he walks back through the field slowly to absorb the experience.
Lost in thought, he raises his eyes and is surprised to see camels approaching. He is not far from the road between Beersheba and Egypt, but these camels have left the road and are heading across the field toward him. The first rider to dismount is Rebecca, the bride that Abraham’s servant is bringing to Isaac. They meet in the field, he loves her, and he begins his new life.
Near the end of the Torah portion, Isaac and his half-brother, Hagar’s son Ishmael, bury Abraham in the family cave to the north. Then Isaac returns to Hagar’s well.
And it was after the death of Abraham when God blessed Isaac, his son; and he settled next to Be-eir Lachai Ro-i. (Genesis 25:11)
The only other place in the book of Genesis that remains holy years later, under the same name, is Beit-El (sometimes called Bethel in English). In the upcoming Torah portion Vayeitzei (“And he went”), Jacob stops for the night on his way to Charan and dreams of a stairway between heaven and earth. God speaks to him for the first time. When Jacob wakes, he says:
Truly God yesh in this place and I, I did not know! And he was awestricken, and he said: How awesome is this place! This is nowhere but Beit El, and this is the gate of the heavens! (Genesis 28:16-17)
yesh = it exists, it is present, there is.
Beit El = the house of God.
For Jacob, the most amazing thing is not that God notices him, but that God exists at all in this world.
Jacob dedicates the spot by setting up a stone pillar and pouring oil over it, and naming it Beit-El. More than 20 years later, God tells him to return to Beit-El. Jacob first buries all the idols belonging to his household. Then he leads them to the spot and builds an altar. God blesses him again, and Jacob pours a libation as well as oil on the stone pillar before moving on. By returning to the place where God first spoke to him, Jacob rededicates himself to God.
Few of us today hear God speaking to us in Biblical Hebrew. But once in a while, we notice God, or God notices us, and we are amazed. Suddenly our usual mundane perspective changes, and the world is suffused with new meaning.
Sometimes this happens because a place strikes us as holy, awe-inspiring, connected with God. It might be a liminal place in nature—the edge of the ocean, deep in a forest, a remote spot with a brilliant night sky. I have also felt that mysterious awe inside medieval cathedrals, though as a Jew I do not go looking for God there.
Sometimes we go back later, and find God again. Sometimes we go back and discover that the place seems ordinary now; the holiness was in our own heart. Either way, it is a blessing to be able to stand on holy ground.