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The first time that I ever looked at a Torah portion for the week, I was amazed that there was SO MUCH in any one week. Oy! a whole course could be taught for any one. And my amazement at the quantity of material has not diminished. I used to quip that the wealth of material in the weekly Parsha was God's gift to Rabbis -- so that they would never run out of subjects to study and teach.
A lot is jammed into any Parsha, just as we pack so much into any given week of our lives. This aspect of my life was brought home to me this week when I looked at my Wednesday schedule that morning. A text class in Agadah, a text class in Zohar, a text review for a history class and a general history class and a text class on Dinim (laws) -- and then some work. I did not schedule the now traditional Wednesday khevruta (study time with a fellow student) for that morning.... I, too, "pack a lot in" sometimes.
I have found two activities particularly helpful for this level of activity -- one is to take a little time in the morning and put my day together -- and the other is taking a little time in the evening to see what was done, what is critical for the next morning and see what I have learned. The morning time is after the dogs are cared for -- fed, watered, exercised; my meditation/davening complete and something eaten. Then my mind can be "clear" -- or at least as clear as it will be -- I outline the "big rocks" and put those into my day -- then I look at the "medium rocks" and place them on the schedule -- then the small rocks, etc.
Some of the things are more like water -- fluid so that they will or won't happen as needed.
At the end of the day, often sitting on the edge of my bed with a pen and paper on the nightstand, I unpack the bottle and discard what can be, examining the gems left by the day's grinding action as I lug the bottle around with me all day. I make notes on things that I want to be sure to remember to put in the bottle the next day. And then, with a clearer mind, I can set about to my nightly rituals.
The image I am using here is from a lesson that was once taught to me. The teacher was in front of us with a large glass bottle and some large rocks. He asked us to describe the status of the bottle and the general consensus was that it was empty. He said nothing, and placed the large rocks into the bottle. He then asked if the bottle was full, which some said that it was, a few suspected an ulterior motive. He then put several smaller rocks into the bottle and again asked if it was full. Only a few said that it was full this time.
Then he did the same thing with small pebbles and then with sand, each time asking if the bottle was full. Fewer said that it was full as each item was added. He then brought a pitcher of water from below the table and set it next to the large bottle and asked what we might have learned from what we saw. Several people offered that the bottle is never "really full".
He countered with the idea that the bottle was always full since the top of it was open (no vacuum) -- and that the real point was that if we did not put the big rocks in first, they might not fit. If we were to try to force them in after the rest of the "stuff", there would have to be shaking up of what was already there and a possibility that the bottle might break if we were not careful.
Then he took out one of the large rocks and poured in some water, swishing the contents around. Nobody said a word as he then re-inserted the large rock into the bottle and "used" the water to move things out of the way so that the rock could be placed into the bottle with some shifting and effort. His point there? Flexibility, as represented by the water, allowed the rock to be inserted, although with some effort -- and the risk of breakage was much reduced.
Ever since then, I have tried to put the big rocks in place first, but I also work to keep enough water at hand should it become needed.
1. Parsha details: Gen 18:1-22:24 (tri 18:1-33) [Haftorah II Kings 4:1-37 (Seph to 4:23)]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Three visitors come to Avraham in the heat of the day -- they predict Sarah's child. Avraham and YHVH discuss the fate of S'dom and 'Amorah (Sodom and Gemorah). Lot and part of his family is rescued from S'dom and go to Tzo'ar and then to caves, where his daughters seduce him. Sarah is taken by Avimelech and returned to Avraham because of Elohim talking to Avimelech in dreams. Yitzkhak is born and weaned and Hagar and Yishma'el are cast out. Avraham is told to sacrifice Yitzkhak, goes to do so, and is stopped by an angel.
These memories of this part of B'reyshiyt are told in some of the most dramatic Hebrew -- the words and music flow. It is not hard to get a sense that these accounts were told over and over again, passed down as part of 'identity' for generations. And Torah is definitely into its word puns in this Parsha. S'dom and 'Amorah are plays on the meanings of secrets and abuse, stocks, pillories and prisons. And so there is a subtle lesson here that abuse is wrong, evil. And there is the added flavor that doing these things to the traveler is beyond even simple evil. (Contrast good Avraham taking care and feeding them and the evil citizens of S'dom wishing to "have their way" with them)
And of course, we have the repeating theme that taking another man's wife is heinous. Killing a husband is considered common and to be feared -- I guess that way it's not adultery. Or is there an even more subtle lesson here having to do with community and how 'justice' was carried out?
Avraham calls Sarah his sister twice and Yitkhak will also call Rivka his sister once. By doing this, they are rewarded when their wives are taken as opposed to being killed. Now, I don't think this means that Avraham was a coward -- I think rather that these accounts were to underscore the importance of community and family. In both of the Avraham accounts, Avraham had no nearby family to avenge his death if someone powerful killed him. Now, that doesn't mean he was looking for a bloodbath of revenge -- it means that the threat or expectation of revenge was the deterrent to something happening.
After all, murder had been around, why, since Kayin and Avel, of course -- the oldest crime recorded. And even then, Kayin's fear is described as being one of being killed by someone else because he murdered. (and we are not going to visit the questions about how he could have had that fear if he was the first to do this act...)
So murder for acquiring a wife is apparently common in many places (even David does a version of this....). In explaining why he claimed to be Sarah's brother he is placing himself as her protector rather than placing both of them as a unit without a protector. Now, the practician in me says that if Avraham was one person, what difference would it make to a killer if he was the brother or the husband... so the answer is obviously deeper.
The answer says that a brother is the protector. Kayin had asked is he his brother's keeper -- and soon we will read about brothers killing a town because the local prince did not do the honorable and correct procedure for acquiring their sister. Brothers do this function. Brothers also marry childless widows of their brothers.
And brothers will fight with each other. And that is why Avraham feels compelled to cast out Yishma'el and Hagar. So how old is this na'ar? Well, he was thirteen when he was circumcised and then a year after that, Yitzkhak is born. It is at Yitzkhak's weaning party that Sarah decides to tell Avraham they must go. So my guess would be that Yishma'el is older than 15 and probably less than 20. (As opposed to the very young boy pictured in popular story books.) So why does he 'fall' from the lack of water first? There is no indication that he is weak or sickly, but he is unable to even walk in that Hagar puts him under the bush to die.
She is not concerned about her immediate death, which should have been fairly imminent, but his -- for he is her meal ticket. Perhaps he has been drinking as little as possible or even none so that she would have more of the precious water. And so he succumbs to the lack first. And Hagar whines and the angel says to her -- "Ma lakh, Hagar" -"What is with you, Hagar", Elohim listened to the voice of the na'ar, in that he is there. She is also told that he will be a mighty nation and she is shown the well from which to get him water. And so she takes care of him and we can assume he takes care of her. He becomes an archer -- a fighter or a hunter, most likely. Today we would say that there is something definitely dysfunctional in this relationship.
And I don't think that the subtleties were lost on the ancient listeners -- they got the messages even better than we do because the Hebrew had instant double and triple meanings for them -- we have to dig for them. Like most accounts in Torah -- it is the white space, the words NOT spoken that speak the loudest.
However, in order to hear these words, we need to silence ourselves enough to hear them -- they are truly the white fire on white fire -- and they can sear their messages into the reader or listener.
3. Some Observations
There is a lot of tradition surrounding the well seen by Hagar in this week's Parsha -- usually saying that the well miraculously appears before her, put there by YHVH. And we like the idea of a miraculous saving, a one-on-one personal intervention on our behalf. Who wouldn't?
And I do think that there is a miracle here -- but the miracle is the gift of opening Hagar's eyes soon enough for Yishma'el to be saved. Torah does NOT say that anybody put that well there (although obviously, somebody had to have dug it originally.... how did we learn to do that?) What Torah says is "And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water;" (21:19)
So the well was there all along, but in her panic, she did not see it. And that is the point. Now, perhaps you are envisioning a cute little well with flowers around it, a cross beam and pulley with a bucket ties in place and a surrounding lean-wall. That is not what the wells would have looked like. They often looked like a pile of rocks, where a rock has been rolled across the opening to protect it and to keep hapless travelers from falling into it. Shepherds would recognize it in a heartbeat -- but Hagar is not a shepherd. She would have stayed pretty close to the household tents most likely -- and so, it was not immediately obvious to her. This is not surprising.
That her inspiration leading to recognition of the existing well is thanks to God opening her eyes does not surprise me. Throughout B'reyshiyt, we see YHVH as the source of understanding, the source of life and the One we turn to for internal strength and support -- not for wild miracles. Avraham did not need miracles to experience the Holy One. He was able to experience the Source on a very real, intimate level. And so did others -- Avraham was not alone in this. We trace back to him because that is our identity. He was the start of the transition from individuals that experienced God to a nation that could, for very brief periods of time, experience God.
So why is so much midrash about miracles? What is it about us that wants miracles to be the explanation of so many things?
I think there is a relationship between this seeking of miracles and the anger some feel when we don't see the zillions of miracles around us every day. The miracle for Hagar was that her eyes were open so that she could see what was there all along. And I think it is important that Hagar's prayers were not heard, but Yishma'el's were. They were both saved -- thanks to the voice of the na'ar, the youth. It would have been easy for Hagar to think that it was her prayers that were being answered -- as they were the time before when she ran away from Sarai.
Both times, God is quite harsh with her -- perhaps she needed harsh treatment after all? Maybe that is the only way she will quiet her one selfishness long enough to hear the One? And he listened to the na'ar's voice "in that he is there" -- usually translated as "where he is at" and is often drashed to imply that we take someone from where they are to help them. Which is certainly a good plan if that works. But God does not listen to Hagar where she is at -- only Yishma'el. Maybe the there where Yisma'el is "at" is the place where he can hear and be heard? Perhaps this is Torah's way of telling us that we have to do part of the work to get at least "there"? Or at least be taking care of someone who gets "there"....
4. Expanding Perseverance
The endurance or lasting quality of mercy -- many examples of that in this week's Parsha. We can see the Infinite mercy in so many acts and at so many levels. There are continual points and counterpoints of this quality. Yishma'el gets to the threshhold and thereby actually is the key actor in saving their lives -- while most readers might think it was Hagar that did the saving.
And so the mercy which endures is often hidden from us in the simple acts of living our daily lives. And when times are tough, it is easy to lose sight of God and the well -- but it is always there -- it is us who do not see. Look for the well -- it is everywhere. We can taste the sweet water every day and we can feel the endurance of the mercy every day -- if we open our eyes and look.
1. Water: Fill a glass with water. Look at it. What do you see? What color is it? Is it moving? Is there air or anything else in the water? Smell it/ What does it smell like? Spill a little on your hands and feel the water. What is the temperature, what is the texture. Drink a tiny sip. What does it taste like? Can you feel it going down? Take a small mouthful and hold it in your mouth. What does it feel like? Can you feel your tongue move through that water? As you swallow it, feel it enter your body and notice it as long as you can.
2. Angels: Angels have one duty, one responsibility to perform and then they disappear. We are all angels at one time or another and we see angels among us every minute of every day. Can you recognize the angels around you? Do you know when you are being an angel for someone else? How do we open our eyes to these miracles that happen everyday, all the time?
3. Words: The unleashed arrows we fling at each other every day. Can we stop them? Can we listen to the words and what they mean, or are we listening to ourselves and what we want to hear. Do we "other" people when we do not listen to their real message? We can make hearing mistakes both ways -- we can fail to hear danger when it is present and we can fail to hear peace when its potential is there. We can listen to words or we can listen to intentions. We can chose to be attentive to much more than the actual words. Can the One open our ears?
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There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved