SALT - Friday 17 Marcheshvan 5776 - October 30, 2015

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Vayera tells the story of Hagar and Yishmael, who were driven from Avraham’s home and wandered in the desert until they ran out of water.  Hagar placed her ailing son under a bush and moved away to avoid watching him die, until “God opened her eyes and showed her a well of water” (21:19), from which she promptly drew water to save Yishmael from death.

            Before God made Hagar see the well, an angel appeared to her, assured her that her son would live, and instructed, “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand…”  We might ask why it was necessary for Hagar to pick up Yishmael before she was shown the well.  Once God determined that Yishmael should live, why did He not immediately reveal the water to Hagar?  Why did He first dispatch an angel to tell Hagar to lift Yishmael?

            Rav Avraham Nesher, in his Pirchei Shoshana, cites a novel interpretation of this account which answers this question.  (Rav Nesher cites this explanation from the Ramban, but it does not actually appear in the Ramban’s commentary.  Apparently, he intended to make reference to a different source.)  According to this explanation, when Hagar placed Yishmael on the ground as he became dehydrated, she unknowingly placed him over the cover of a well, thus concealing it from her view.  The angel appeared to Hagar and instructed her to lift her son, whereupon the well was revealed.  Thus, it was as a result of lifting Yishmael off the ground that “her eyes were opened” and saw the well.

            Symbolically, this is a very powerful reading of the events.  When Hagar put Yishmael down on the ground, this was an act of despair.  As the Torah relates, she decided to move far away from her son so she would not see him die.  Rather than continuing to do all she could to help, such as search for water sources or at least comfort her ailing son, she simply gave up and left.  As it happened, this act of despair had the effect of blinding her to the solution.  When she put Yishmael down on the ground, giving up all hope of helping him, she obstructed the solution from her view.  In order to save Yishmael, she first needed to pick him off the ground and hold him – to act as most parents would in that situation, remaining with the child and trying to help until the final breath of life.  Once she renewed her hope, the solution came into view.

            Hope requires courage, but it is often indispensable to solving the problem.  Despair blinds us, making us unable to see the possibilities that exist.  Rather than give up during times of hardship, we need to continue searching for the “well” without despairing.  Otherwise, we might unknowingly block access to precisely the kind of help we need.