Focusing on the best in us


I have always loved Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series and I am excited to hear that book six is due out this winter. The lead character in the series is Ayla, a vibrant, determined, creative, intelligent woman who by remaining true to herself, changes the course of human history. Book Two in the series, The Valley of Horses, opens as Ayla, cursed with death by the leader of the people who raised and cared for her, and sent out from them, is wondering in uninhabited, unfamiliar territory; alone, numb with emotion, and contemplating her death. Suddenly, she tells herself: “..he could make me leave, he could curse me with death, but he could not make me die!” As the story continues, Ayla finds a cave which becomes her home, and learns how not just to survive, but to live again.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Vayera, we hear a similar story. Hagar was Sarah’s slave. Sarah was barren and in keeping with the customs of the time, demanded that Hagar have a child by Abraham since she herself could not. Some time later, Sarah did have a child with Abraham, Isaac. She demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, saying: “Cast out that slavewoman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)

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Abraham sent the two away, giving them “some bread and a skin of water” (Genesis 21:14). Hagar wandered about in the wilderness of Be’er Sheva. That wilderness is desert. Imagine what Hagar is going through. She has a young child, a bit of water and some bread. She is wondering in a desert with no one to help her. It is hot, desolate, inhospitable. And she feels abandoned, worthless, and bitter. Although they didn’t kill her and her child, they might as well have. What can she possibly do to survive and create a life for her child? Her water runs out and she despairs. She leaves her child under a bush and goes to sit a distance away so she will not have to watch him die. The world has cast her out. It is more than she can bear. They have sent her and her son to her death. She has no choice.

Or does she?

The Torah teaches us that God opened her eyes, and she saw a water well. The well had been there all along, but Hagar had not been able to see it. Water, of course, is survival. She goes and gets water, and gives it to her son. The two live, and Ishmael grows up to fulfill God’s promise: “I will make a great nation of him” (Genesis 21:18).

For both Hagar and Ayla, there is a transformative moment when they realize that they do, indeed, have a choice. Their eyes are opened and they see what has always been there but seemed hidden by the tragedies and traumas they were experiencing. They realize that they can take control of their lives, transcend what moments ago seemed impossible odds, and not just survive, but thrive — living a good, productive, and happy life with whatever time is given to them. They both make the choice to live, and their lives subsequently change the course of human history.

Each of us faces challenges throughout our lives. At some point in our lives, most of us face traumas and tragedies that put us in what feels like a very dark place with no way out. We wonder why the world seems to be conspiring against us; why those we loved hurt us; why, despite our very best efforts, this horrible thing is happening to us. We wonder why there is no light, no joy, no goodness. We feel numb and hopeless.

In those most difficult times, Hagar (and Ayla!) can be our role model. From them, we learn the importance of opening our eyes, and learning to truly see what is already there, all around us: the people who love us, the friends who support us, the strengths and talents God has given us, the possibilities and promises of the world in which we find ourselves, the blessings that fill our lives.

May our Torah portion remind us to focus on seeing what has always been there, to appreciate the gifts that are in our lives, and to define ourselves always by the best the is in us, and not by the worst that has been done to us.

Rabbi Lynn Goldstein serves Kol HaNeshama and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.