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Wellsprings of Empathy

So many of the ancestral foundation stories in the Torah take place in the מדבר/midbar, translated sometimes as wilderness, sometimes as desert. Even as the midbar is a place of revelation—suggested by the etymology of its root ד-ב-ר/dalet-bet-resh, which is the same as the noun דבר/davar/word and the verb לדבר/ledaber/to speak—it is also a place of aridity and barrenness. Sources of water are essential in the desert and therefore, wells are extremely important locations in the Torah. Wells are gathering places where encounters happen. Consider Abraham’s servant meeting Isaac’s future bride Rebecca (Genesis 24:13-27), or Jacob spotting Rachel for the first time (Genesis 29:1-11). Theological and existential undercurrents inform these encounters. These are the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs, so in a way they are our stories as well, and we are meant to understand that God’s will flows through these meetings at the well.  

In Genesis, some of the most significant of these well moments happen not to the progenitors of the Jewish story, but to Hagar. Pregnant by Abram and at odds with Sarai, Hagar flees to the desert, where she finds a well and is addressed by a מלאך/malakh/messenger of God. Hagar is commanded to return and receives a blessing of abundant descendants that parallels the blessing that Abraham receives multiple times, and she is given the name of her future son, Ishmael, God hears. Not only does God speak to Hagar, but God will listen as well. Recognizing the potency of this encounter, Hagar adds to the auditory and oral experiences by layering in the visual. Hagar names God אל ראי/El Roi, God of seeing, and the well באר לחי ראי/Be’er Lehai Roi, the well of the living one (Genesis 16:7-14) 

After the miraculous birth of Isaac, Sarah drives Hagar and Ishmael away and Hagar returns to the desert, despondent and fearful for Ishmael’s life. As promised, God hears Ishmael’s cries and then God opens her eyes to show Hagar a well that will sustain them (Genesis 21:13-19). Commentators, ancient and contemporary, mull over whether the well was newly revealed or whether Hagar was so blinded by her grief that she was unable to see it in front of her. And though the well is not named in this passage, there is the tantalizing possibility that it is the same well from her earlier encounter, Be’er Lehai Roi.

In Judaism, it is Sarah and her son Isaac who are chosen to continue the lineage and the story, not Hagar and her son Ishmael. Yet they are included in the Torah, and Hagar especially is featured. Cuban-American anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar teaches that, in not being chosen, Hagar is presumably “thrown away.” However, by not being erased from Jewish canon, Behar observes that it is clear we should not forget Hagar. The question becomes: how is it that we should remember Hagar? 

God is close in these stories, speaking to our ancestors, sometimes directly and sometimes through מלאכים/malakhim/messengers. God hears their cries. Hagar is a regular interlocutor and a namer of God as El Roi, which Tikvah FrymerKensky teaches can mean both “The God I have seen” and the “God who sees me.” 

All of us want to be seen. All of us want to be heard. All of us want to be recognized. The Torah teaches that, in remembering Hagar, we are invited to see the humanity and the צלם אלוהים/tzelem elohim/image of the divine in other people, even the ones not chosen, even the ones who might become our foes. In remembering Hagar, we are invited into empathy. 

Drawing on millennia of Jewish teachings, we aim to recognize and draw out the godliness in every person and in every situation.

The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas placed face-to-face encounter and relationship at the heart of ethics; for him the gravest human sin is when we depersonalize the “other,” when we refuse to see their faces. Levinas’ ethical teaching is urgent in this time when we are facing unbearable violence and brutality. 

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column titled “How to Stay Sane in Brutalizing Times. Brooks draws on many sources, beginning with the ancient Greeks. Brooks suggests that Greek philosophers and playwrights offered a “tragic sensibility,” which he describes as a forthright understanding of the fragility of society and the equally forthright recognition that, in the face of social instability and even repeated civilizational shatterings, we nonetheless have a choice in how to respond. Brooks draws five lessons from this tragic sensibility. It teaches us a sense of humility, which he defines as the ability to “cast aside illusions and vanities and see life as it really is.” It cultivates a “prudent” approach to life and fosters resilience. It promotes caution. It teaches us to be suspicious of our own rage, which can engender cruelty and which, he warns, “hardens and corrodes the mind of its bearer.” Finally, a tragic sensibility exposes us to the suffering of others and, in encountering their suffering, we can find our common humanity. These lessons combine exponentially to teach us compassion, at all times, even the cruelest. 

Brooks then offers up a core teaching of what he calls the Abrahamic faiths, namely, “audacity of the heart,” that invites us to lead with love, even in the harshest moments. Brooks channels Levinas, writing, “As much as we need bread and water, human beings need recognition. The essence of dehumanization is not to see someone, to render him inconsequential and invisible.” He urges open-heartedness, curiosity and even vulnerability, all in the service of social repair, which is an abiding preoccupation of his. 

Brooks then offers up a core teaching of what he calls the Abrahamic faiths, namely, “audacity of the heart,” that invites us to lead with love, even in the harshest moments.

For me, Brooks’ counsel resonates deeply with a Reconstructionist approach, which is grounded in intentional optimism. Drawing on millennia of Jewish teachings, we aim to recognize and draw out the godliness in every person and in every situation. We are at once pragmatists and activists. We emphasize a partnership with the divine that commands us to act in ways that make manifest God’s attributes (mercy, love, justice and so many more) and in this way demonstrate God’s presence in our world. We acknowledge our ancestors’ messianic vision for a redeemed world and transmute it into modern and post-modern expressions, neither retreating from the world in tribal separatism or nor wrapping ourselves in fundamentalist certainty. Instead, we bring it to life in our day-to-day existence, in our interactions with others, in the communities we build and the work that we do. I am adamant that our optimism is not naïve. It is an ongoing set of intentional choices about who we are, who we want to be, what kind of world that we want to live in and that we want to create for the next generation. 

David Brooks shared that he was recently asked, “Isn’t it dangerous to be vulnerable toward others when there is so much bitterness, betrayal and pain all around?” He acknowledged the legitimacy of that question and responded: “Yes, it is dangerous. But it is also dangerous to be hardened and calloused over by hard times. It is also dangerous, as C.S. Lewis put it, to guard your heart so thoroughly that you make it ‘unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.’” We cannot truly know the effect that this stance will have on other people. Ultimately, it is about us: “[T]his is about who you are becoming in corrosive times.” 

There is so much we do not know and we cannot see. Hagar was deep in the midbar, a bleak and barren place where she could not imagine sustenance, despairing of a future for herself and her son. God opened her eyes to a well that brought her and all her descendants life, quite possibly the same well where she previously encountered and felt seen by God.  

In the Torah, shortly after Ishmael’s salvation comes the binding of Isaac, a moment where another child’s approach toward death is miraculously interrupted. There is much speculation—in ancient midrash, in modern poetry, in essays—about the impact of the עקידה/akedah on Isaac. While we know little about Isaac’s agency before that point, in this week’s Torah portion we learn that afterward Isaac, in his adulthood, chose to live right near Be’er Lehai Roi. It is there where he meets his bride Rebecca, whom he loves—the sole mention of love in the stories we have inherited about the patriarchs and matriarchs (Genesis 24:62-67). The well is a place of being sustained, seeing and being seen, a place of love, a place of redemption. 

May we find wellsprings of empathy and move toward love. May we all see and be seen. Even in the hardest of times, may we find ways to be our best selves. May we find unexpected moments and locations of redemption. In the midst of deep uncertainty, may our eyes be opened to new paths forward. 

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