[For Congregation Ner Shalom - November 6, 2009]
Tonight we will talk about desperation and hope; about seeing and not seeing. Our Torah portion this week is called Vayera. It is the fourth parashah in Torah, and we know some of its stories quite well. Abraham is visited by men we understand to be angels; Sarah gives birth to a child in her old age; Abraham bargains with God to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (unsuccessfully); Lot's wife becomes a pillar of salt. There are great destructions and intimate sufferings.
One of the subplots that most interests me in Vayera is the story of Hagar. You might recall that Hagar had been Sarah's Egyptian slave. When Sarah found she was unable to bear children, she offered Hagar to her husband as a surrogate, so that Abraham's line should not die out. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. But then in this parashah Sarah miraculously gives birth to Isaac and things change.
At some moment, Sarah sees Ishmael doing something that troubles her. She sees him metzachek - laughing, teasing Isaac, gloating. It's unclear. We don't know what the word metzachek means in this context and we never will. But whatever Sarah saw convinced her that Ishmael's presence in the household was a threat - to safety, to posterity, we don't quite know. She demanded that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael into exile in the desert. Abraham questions this, but God backs Sarah, telling Abraham to follow Sarah's instructions and send away his firstborn.
Hagar journeys into the wilderness. There, wandering, lost, the food and water having run out, she at last gives in to despair. She sees no hope, no possibility of a happy ending, survival or any acceptable outcome. She sets Ishmael down under a bush and walks a bowshot's distance away, declaring that she will not watch her child die, a thoroughly harrowing statement. She sits down herself and bursts into tears.
But God hears the child's cry and sends an angel to Hagar. The angel calls from the heavens and assures her that God has heard the child and will save him, and that Ishmael will be blessed and become a great nation. Then God "opened her eyes" and Hagar saw a well. She filled her bottle and gave water to her child.
This story is packed with far too many troubling issues and surprising plot points to be able to discuss more than a fraction. But to begin with, I'm always fascinated and impressed that our tradition is willing to show our patriarch and matriarch in such an inescapably unfavorable light. We can come up with justifications for their actions, and that has been the project of many generations of rabbis and commentators. But they are nonetheless justifications of something that on paper, on parchment, just looks bad. The willingness to give holy status to a text full of our ancestors' shortcomings says a lot about our tradition's trust that we have the intelligence and patience to sit with difficulty and imperfection, and to understand the world in nuanced ways. This story contains brutal realism. Our ancestors were not gods or saints. Their lives, like ours, contained harshnesses of which they were not only victims but also dealers.
Similarly, I think it's also noteworthy that an angel speaks to Hagar. She is not our foremother. She is not a Hebrew. She is a slave. And she is a woman. You would not expect her moment of revelation, her interaction with the Divine, to be recorded. Even Sarah only overhears the words of angels through a tent flap. But Hagar is spoken to directly, in the depths of her despair. And surprisingly enough, we hear about it.
But besides surprise at the very existence of this story and in the way it is told, what can the story teach us? Because that's what makes Torah Torah. If it can't teach us, then it is not Torah, but merely ink on skin. So what is there here for us to learn?
There is a lesson here, I think, about seeing and not seeing. After the angel speaks words of comfort and promise about Ishmael's future, God, perhaps through the angel, opens Hagar's eyes and she sees the well. There is no indication that this is a miraculous well. It is not Miriam's well that legend tells us appeared in times of need. In fact, there is no indication that the well "appears" at all. It is already there, and Hagar simply "sees" it. Much as Abraham, one chapter later, holding a knife over the bound body of his second son, "sees" a ram caught in a thicket, that he hadn't seen a moment earlier, and offers it as a sacrifice instead. Two children, each saved by sudden sight. In each case, no new thing appeared, unless that new thing was openness to a new possibility.
In Hagar's case, despair had closed her eyes. And can't we all see ourselves in that? When we feel pained and unsupported in our pain, how many times have we let go of hope, or been tempted to? How many times has our suffering stopped us from recognizing help even when it is at our doorstep? How many times have we failed to perceive the deep wells of holy energy that can sustain us? There was no miracle in this story. Hagar is either told, or encouraged, or helped, by a Divine Being or maybe just by an instinct deeper and stronger than despair, to open her eyes. Help is there. But you have to open your eyes to see it. Use your sight. Use your insight. The well, deep and soothing and sweet, is waiting.
Good lesson, eh? And I think it's true, at least on a certain spiritual level. But, on the other hand, this reading isn't completely satisfying either. Too optimistic. It doesn't comport with our experience of the world. This is not the best of all possible worlds, and all we have to do is be awake to it. Sometimes no matter how awake we are, what we see is not good.
Tonight, as you know, we are remembering the lost Jewish community of Sobeslav, whose Torah scroll sits in our aron kodesh. The hundreds of Jews who lived in this Southern Bohemian town - butchers, carpenters, rabbis, healers, tradespeople, mothers, fathers, grandchildren - were forced, not in Biblical times but in our own lifetimes or our parents' lifetimes, into a situation of unspeakable desperation. The jaws of the Shoah closed in on them until there was no escape. They were dragged from their homes. They perished under circumstances that I'm both sad and happy to say none of us can even imagine. It would be false and insulting to say that help would have been there if they had simply opened their eyes and known where to look. Because I'm sure they looked. The kind of help that would have let them survive was not there or was not within reach. And it is foolish and wrong to think it was merely overlooked.
So, in light of the Holocaust and so many other calamities we can name, what lesson can we draw, if any, from Hagar's story? Maybe her story was a fluke, the rare happy ending. If so, then what about all the other Hagars whose stories we don't know but can so easily imagine? The displaced, the disowned, the despairing. How many of them didn't make it? Is the lesson then that there is always a divine source - or personal source - of strength and hope, but it might not always actually save you? Or there is a divine source of strength and hope, but it is conditional - conditioned upon certain factors which we don't understand or know how to predict? After all, what, if anything, made Hagar more deserving of hope and survival than the other Hagars, or than the Jews of Sobeslav and six million others like them?
Maybe we have to look at the story from another angle. We must ask, "Who are we in this story?" And then we must ask, "Are we certain of that?" We all naturally identify with Hagar. We identify with her suffering and her despair. But maybe that's not the only way to see it. Maybe the Jews of Sobeslav, for instance, are not Hagar in the story, even though they certainly rivaled her in displacement and desperation. Maybe they are not even the helpless crying child. What if those who suffer in the world, like the Jews of Sobeslav, are, in this story, represented by the angel?
After all, isn't it our belief, feeble though it may seem in the most brutal of times, that God suffers with us when we suffer? The Shechinah weeps with us. Or looking at it differently, if God is somehow a shared impulse, isn't God also our shared suffering? Perhaps the appearance of an angel in extreme times is a spiritual reflex of our own deep human suffering. It is our suffering's divine counterpart.
Haven't we all experienced moments when God feels more real and more intimate when we are in pain than when we are not? Don't our prayers feel especially real, especially grounded, and sometimes especially heard in those times? Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi teaches that If you want to make a prayer - any prayer - feel deeper, more real, more personal, insert one additional syllable: Oy.
Sim shalom. Grant us peace. Oy, grant us peace. Modeh ani l'faneycha. I'm grateful to be alive this morning. Oy, I'm grateful to be alive. Yitgadal v'yitkadash. Oy. May God name be exalted and sanctified. Oy.
So yes, maybe the people of Sobeslav were not the suffering Hagar, and not the crying child, but the angel, the messenger. They, like the millions of Jews and Roma and Queers stood, and their memory still stands, before the rest of the despairing, unseeing world, saying, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Open your eyes."
Sadly, unlike Hagar, it seems the world didn't, and hasn't yet. But maybe the angel is still speaking. We are the heirs of the Jews of Sobeslav and others like them. We hold their Torah scroll, but are we also ready to assume their mantle? To be the angel? To continue saying to the world, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. There is a well of hope and healing. It is within reach. It can save you. It can save us all. But you must open your eyes to find it."
The angel is the messenger, but not the guarantor of the result. In Hagar's story the angel was successful. Maybe in the stories of others like Hagar, the angel was not. But in this world where God is a non-interventionist, we can't count on the outcome. But even so, we are not free to refuse the mission. As it says in Pirkei Avot: lo aleycha hamlachah ligmor v'lo atah ben-chorin l'hibatel mimenah. It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to abstain from beginning it.
Let us continue to speak to this despairing world. Let us be the messenger, the angel, with the memory of the people of Sobeslav and the millions like them as the wind under our wings, keeping us aloft, and on our path. Let us continue to speak to the world, to speak to history, and say, "Open your eyes. Open your eyes. Open your eyes."