Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Letter from the Rabbi – Open your eyes and be surprised!

One of the Torah readings this month includes two stories that look like they are heading for a disastrous conclusion. The stories concern the fate of one or other of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac.

At the urging of his wife Sarah, Abraham sends away his concubine Hagar and her child Ishmael (Abraham’s elder son). Mother and child set off into the desert carrying food and water, but before very long, the water bottle is empty. Hagar cannot bear to see her son die, so she puts him under a bush, goes to sit some distance away, and weeps bitterly. As for us, at this point in the story we have feelings of distress, of doom. There is no future.

Let’s leave that story for a moment and look at the other – the horrific tale we call the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. We are told that God tests Abraham, instructing him to take his beloved son Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. We watch with horror as Abraham prepares for the journey, without a word of protest. He and Isaac arrive at the designated place. Abraham builds the altar, binds up Isaac and lays him on the altar; he takes the knife and makes ready to slay his son.

Again, as in the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, we feel so helpless, as it seems the story must take its inevitable, painful, course. It’s partly that in each case, the adult sees no alternative. Each is blinded to other alternatives. Hagar is wailing as her son faces certain death. Abraham is determinedly doing what he believes is the will of God, seemingly unable to shift course and put life before death.

I believe we have all had moments when we feel there is no way forward. A sense that life – real living – has come to a stop. But in these stories new inspiration and new life intervene.

God interrupts Hagar’s wailing and tells her to go back to her son, promising that the boy’s descendants will become a great nation. Well, God speaking is all very well, but let’s not forget Hagar has run out of water. So although she must be heartened by God’s words, she still cannot see a way out of the deathly present, into a life-full future. Isn’t it true for us too? When we’re stuck, we just can’t see a way forward.

So God intervenes in a different way. He “opens Hagar’s eyes”. To her (and our) surprise, where Hagar has seen only desert, she now sees, just a short distance away, a spring of fresh water. She fills the water bottle, goes to her son, and gives him to drink.

Let’s return quickly to that other story. We left Abraham, knife in hand, about to slay his son Isaac, bound on the altar in front of him. Here again, it is God’s voice that interrupts Abraham’s set path, calling to him not to kill his son, not to harm him in any way. God says that, as Abraham has shown his willingness to listen to God’s word, Isaac (like Ishmael in the other story) will be the father of a great nation.

I picture Abraham as still paralyzed, unable to take a step away from the brink, unable to make the move towards life. He still needs to see a way forward. We read then that Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. That’s when he is able to change course: he sacrifices the ram instead of his son Isaac.

So each of these stories has a surprise twist that enables the person to “see” what couldn’t be seen before – a spring of water, or a ram caught in the thicket. Suddenly there are possibilities.

I know that sometimes, for instance after the tragic loss of a loved one, or when one is struck by major illness or disability, there may seem no more possibility of rich and valuable life. But I have seen so many residents find new meaning in their lives, new possibilities of richness and joy. Here is a challenge to us all, to be willing to be surprised – to discover that the course of our own story may have a twist we didn’t expect, one that we couldn’t have dreamt of, one that opens a new path to a life of meaning and richness. Let’s just open our eyes!

Rabbi Anthony Elman

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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