On Rosh Hashanah we’re tossed on a sea of words. At times I’ve felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, spinning in her house in the twister as bizarre images rear up and disappear in the windows. The day’s metaphors aren’t easily reconciled: God as stern judge, God as loving father. We ourselves as slaves; or as beloved children. Sarah the laughing mother; Sarah casting out Ishmael. The joy of birth; the chill of death. The day can be difficult to navigate. And like that scene in The Wizard of Oz, it may seem like it’s all in black and white.
What do we gain from all this? How can the experience of Rosh Hashanah — the liturgy, the Torah reading — move us toward where we need to go? How can it help us to accomplish the work we must do in order to emerge renewed and rededicated at the end of the road that culminates in Yom Kippur?
I’d like to suggest that Hagar and her story provide a road map. In our Torah reading Hagar stands out: problematic, pushing boundaries, demanding to be noticed. Her very name echoes her status as “the stranger” and her presence disturbs the flow, bringing complexity and moral ambiguity to our story. Perhaps if we ask “Why is she here today?” it will help us answer the question “Why are we here today?”
Hagar’s story is inextricably bound up with Sarah’s. When God “remembers” Sarah, enabling her to become pregnant at age ninety, this miracle comes a little late in the game. Previously, during the period when God had seemingly forgotten her, Sarah had taken matters into her own hands. Unable to bear children herself, she had designated Hagar, her Egyptian slave, to become impregnated through Avraham. Hagar is to serve as surrogate mother for a child Sarah expects to consider her own.
Hagar is a servant, introduced for a utilitarian purpose, but, remarkably, the text takes note of her feelings. She demands to be more than just a vessel for Sarah’s child and once she becomes pregnant, Hagar chafes in her servile role. She loses respect for Sarah, who then reasserts her authority by treating Hagar harshly.
Ultimately Hagar flees to the wilderness — it’s the first of two times she’ll end up there — only to be told by a messenger of God that she must return and continue to suffer Sarah’s abuse. Her reward will be a wild and powerful son. He’ll be everything she’s not: strong and free, subject to no one. With that promise she returns and gives birth to Ishmael.
As today’s reading begins, the birth of Isaac has made Hagar’s position untenable. To secure Isaac’s role as Avraham’s heir, Sarah demands the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, who is now a boy of about 16. Avraham is told by God to go along with this plan.
Banished with meager provisions, Hagar wanders in the wilderness. It seems she has nowhere to go. She runs out of water, and, in a moment of terrible anguish, puts Ishmael down under a bush and cries alone some distance away.
The verb used for her separation from Ishmael — tashleich — suggests that she flings him aside. But perhaps this word is meant to suggest not so much the physical act of throwing but the emotional violence of the breaking of the bond between mother and child.
Some commentators argue that Hagar must have been deficient as a mother — no good mother could ever do such a thing. But I think this is one of the places she challenges us to see more, to feel more, to get beyond knee-jerk disapproval. If we truly enter into the moment, who are we to judge? There are times when human beings are pushed beyond the pale and their behavior calls out for our empathy.
Once or twice, long ago, at my wit’s end trying to quiet a screaming infant, I put her down just a little too roughly. No damage was done. She’s here today. But I was taken aback at the time to realize that my action was at the far end of a continuum that stretched to encompass much worse forms of violence. The mentality that could lead to acts I abhor became suddenly — uncomfortably — a bit more familiar. It doesn’t mean we endorse Hagar’s actions to say they are not totally foreign, that we can feel some empathy.
Ultimately, in the moment of her utter despair, of Hagar’s most profound grief, something remarkable happens. Her eyes are opened and she sees a well. Was this a supernatural occurrence? God made a well appear in front of her? Sure, I mean it’s the same God who split the sea for Moses and stopped the sun in its tracks for Joshua. But there’s another way of reading the text that I find even more compelling: The Rambam, Maimonides, stresses that the word “yifkach” — “opened” — denotes a change in consciousness, not external reality. The well was there all along, but Hagar was so consumed by the bleakness of her fate that she failed to see it.
There’s also another possibility: perhaps Hagar saw the well but not the water. The term the Torah uses to describe it is odd in its redundancy: be'er mayim, “a well of water.” Is there any other kind of well?
Actually, yes: an empty one. We can imagine Hagar stumbling upon what appears to be a well — finding it empty — and then, having seen her last hope come to naught, succumbing to despair. That empty well, that failed hope, is worse than no well at all.
Of course, we can’t help but read the Torah through the prism of our own lives. On Rosh Hashanah a few years ago, when we came to this part of the story, I had a strange reaction. I felt I had been there; that I had experienced a scene like this one.
My mother suffered from depression, and there were times when my father was overwhelmed by it and unable to deal with her. Sometimes he would ask me, his eldest child, to go to her and see what I could do. I would have been about sixteen; Ishmael's age. I remember walking towards her room at the end of a long hallway. Light streamed out around the edges of her dark, closed door. I went in and found her crouched on the edge of her bed. Tearfully, she spoke of her sorrows and failures. I sat to the side. Listening. Watching.
I don't recall the specifics of what she said, but an image came into my mind at the time that I remember vividly: it was a deep, cavernous, empty pit. As she spoke, all her sorrows seemed to swirl down into the void.
I can't pretend to have fully understood what my mother was going through. I was a bystander, the boy off to the side. Call me Ishmael. Not Ishmael the man who casts a long shadow throughout history, but the youth, as the text puts it “ba’sher hu sham” -- “where he was” in that moment.
I can only speak about what I felt back then: compassion, of course, and the powerful force of her emotions. But I was also intrigued by the stark and raw face of the world she revealed to me. I respected her honesty, painful as it was for both of us. I understood that the dark and the void — the pit — was an essential part of her life. Yet, as I timidly peered over the edge I was also aware of not wanting to get too close, fearful that I might fall in.
While I once identified with Ishmael — and have even found myself entranced by the melancholy allure of the empty pit at times — now I am drawn to Hagar and her open eyes. Perhaps because I’m older, the pit seems both more real and less enticing.
I value Hagar not because she embodies the tragic side of life, but because she sees it yet survives. Why is she called “the stranger”? Could it be because she represents what we are loathe to recognize? The “Other” that is also part of our story. Where do we find her in our lives? Is she a part of ourselves we’ve denied or forgotten? A loved one we can no longer see? Something essential to our wholeness that we’ve cast aside?
And why is she here in today’s Torah reading? Perhaps to teach us that our losses and dissonances have a place here; that we need to own up to our real story, the fullness of it, including the parts we see as strange or hold at a distance.
Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Memory and Remembering, Yom HaZikkaron. We’re called upon to mirror our image of an omniscient God and see ourselves fully. Hagar asks us if the stranger is really so strange. Her story begs us to look at how we use other people to serve ourselves. She forces us to confront the places in ourselves where we have given up hope, and then she also demands of us the courage to reexamine our empty places and see if they are truly empty — to look for the hidden spring.
So often, we become the authors of our own fate by regarding our course as inevitable. We miss opportunities because they don’t fit our preconceived notions of the path we’re on. Or we stand in front of closed doors never considering the possibility that they may be unlocked.
Rosh Hashanah provides models of a different approach. Avraham, at the akedah, despite his fierce determination to carry out his mission and slay his son, is somehow able to see an alternative: the ram in the thicket. Hagar, similarly, breaks through the fog of her despair and sees the well. These are “miracles” we can relate to — not because the ram or the well are supernatural phenomena, but because the capacity to change, to reframe, to overcome trauma; to get beyond our physical, emotional or spiritual limitations is an extraordinary feature of humanity.
The nit-pickers among us might point out that Avraham and Hagar are only able to change course because divine messengers show up at the critical moment to point the way. Sure, if I knew that when I hit rock bottom an angel would show up with my ticket home I’d be open to that. But it’s not how the world works.
So what do we make of the angels that appear to Hagar and Avraham? Do they reduce these stories to fairy tales?
I don’t think so. I think the angels are here to tell us something important: that as we strive to change, as we challenge ourselves, we’re not in this alone. It doesn’t all have to come from within. There are no guarantees, but we may get some help, possibly even when we need it most. A word from a friend, an unexpected glimpse of something beautiful, counsel from a licensed professional — perhaps even a thought from the machzor — can make a difference.
Rosh Hashanah asks us to consider our fate. In the U’netaneh Tokef prayer we ask who shall live and who shall die — and how: by fire? by water? There’s certainly a scare-factor here — and it’s effective. As they say: “Nothing concentrates the mind like the thought of being hanged in the morning.”
Our ancestors trembled, knowing that their fate was being decided on Rosh Hashanah. If we let go of that concept what are we left with? What remains is the urgency of the task before us. The fact that we might not literally believe in a God on High weighing our merits only underlines our uncertainty and heightens our vulnerability. We don’t believe we’ll be rewarded for good behavior. We don’t know what the coming year will bring. Rosh Hashanah asks us to put aside — at least for a moment — any false sense of certainty about the future.
This uncertainty can be chilling but also potentially liberating: can we be open to a change of destiny? We can’t necessarily alter our fate, but we can break free of a determinist mentality that freezes out possibilities. We can face up to the time limit our mortality imposes and it can help motivate us to move forward.
In closing, I’d like you to imagine looking at a shofar — not in profile as we usually do — but from the front, peering directly into the large opening. What you’d see looks a lot like that empty well.
Yet when it’s animated by human breath, the emptiness speaks — the shofar gives voice to the void. Its sound can cut through the sea of words, push aside our muddled thoughts, and resonate in the empty places within us, calling on us to fill them. Visceral and primitive, the shofar’s cry joins with Hagar’s, urging us to seize the day, to transform emptiness into openness, to have the courage to see the work we need to do — and to begin again.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah.