By Rabbi Wendi Geffen, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Vayeira (Genesis 18:1–22:24)
A man who lived on Staten Island relied on the ferry to get to work in New York City every day. One morning, he was running incredibly late, and feared that he wouldn’t get to the dock on time, so he rushed, arriving just as the ferry was a few out. Fiercely, he ran forward and leapt off the dock, landing on the deck of the ferry with a loud thud – he made it!
As he stood up, rubbing his head, only then did he notice that the ferry had just pulled up to the dock and anchored. The ferry was not on its way out at all, but rather on its way in. The man was so wrapped up in the chaos of his morning that he completely misjudged what was going on.
Most of us can relate to this man; after all, how many times have we missed the proverbial boat? How often have we’ve gotten so caught up in our own business, our own tzuris that we didn’t notice what was so obvious right in front of our eyes?
This is not a modern phenomenon. We’ve been suffering from the condition of short sightedness for as long as we can remember. Consider this week’s Torah portion Vayeira’s description of one of the most heart-rending moments in the Biblical narrative when Abraham banishes Hagar, Sarah’s servant, and Ishmael, Hagar and Abraham’s son.
Abraham gives Hagar a little food and a pouch of water, and sends both of them away. They wander in the wilderness until the water is gone. In despair, Hagar sets her son down under a bush, saying: “I cannot look on as the child dies.” She sits at a distance and weeps; despondent, she has given up.
But the story isn’t over. As the boy cries, G-d sends an angel who tells Hagar to lift up the boy and take him by the hand. When the two are reunited, the Torah then says: “G-d opened Hagar’s eyes –vayifkach Elohim et- eyneha– and she saw a well of water.” Many commentators point out that G-d does not create a well of water where there was not one before. Rather, G-d opens Hagar’s eyes so that she could see a well that had been there all along, a well she had been blinded to by her own tears and resignation.
How often do we find ourselves like Hagar: so blinded, often justifiably, by everything going on around us in a given moment or experience that we miss the wells of our own life-giving potential, the blessings that were right in front of us all along?
One of the reasons for this is that we have a tendency to come to see our lives as already determined, often assuming that the world is so much bigger and more powerful than us, so fixed that we couldn’t possibly change the way things are going. The other major obstacle in seeing the blessings before us is the fear we have of what may happen if we see the potential, invest ourselves in it, and then fail. There are, after all, no guaranteed outcomes.
When we find ourselves so overwhelmed with our own troubles that we are blinded to the way we might be able to help someone else, when we find ourselves so resigned to the way our relationships are that we relinquish any attempt to communicate, apologize, or forgive in order to make the relationship stronger, when we fall victim to the latest psycho-social diagnosis of “compassion fatigue,” finding ourselves so exhausted at the thought of making the effort to do any task that could make a difference for our neighbor, our community or our world, we are not victims of our circumstances, despite what we may tell ourselves.
We are choosing them, and as such, we are choosing not to open our eyes. We do well to remember Maimonides’ teaching: “We ourselves decide whether to make ourselves learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly. No one forces us, no one decides for us, no one drags us along one path or another; we ourselves, by our own volition, choose our own way.”
If you look up “hope” in the dictionary, the first definition reads “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic, defines hope differently. He says hope is “…not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
How deeply Havel’s definition should resonate with us in our world today. Indeed, when we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed or even hopeless, we must remember that at the end of the day, we still can or even must act with the character of convictions and desires for the good. The wells of nourishment, promise and hope are there, just as they have always been; we must choose to open our eyes to see them.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen is rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel.