Last Monday night, I spent my first night serving as a chaplain, offering spiritual care to people who find themselves for one reason or another, in the hospital. I was on my way to a visit that I expected to be pretty “low key” when I got a page that a patient’s family member was in distress – could I come?
I arrived at this seated stranger, lowered myself to the floor in front of her, and asked what had happened. As she told me of how her beloved 30 year old cousin had been battling cancer for the past 9 months and then taken a very sudden turn towards death, she began to weep. “Why him, why him, why him?” she pleaded and pleaded with God for meaning, for reason.
I stood there trying to just hold her pain, her sadness and horror, and her question. Why him? after all? Why anyone? It is both a singular and universal struggle we confront in our human lifetimes – Why you? Why me? Why them? Why us?
Many of us are in different phases of grief and suffering right now. Some have lost loved ones, others long hoped for plans have been abruptly changed. Some have lost autonomy and many have lost physical closeness to others. I have heard many of you, myself included, asking “why?”
You do not turn to someone in the depths of their suffering and seek to answer such questions. In a sense, these questions will always be unanswerable. But overtime, the question will change. “Why me,” will give way to “what am I in control of?” When I face all that I have lost, what do I still have?
Today we read from chapter 21 of Genesis. The story of this ancient family, our ancient family, is full of grief. With a sentence, Sarah casts Hagar out of Abraham’s house. Erasing her from their family. Having only two hard won children, Abraham is distraught that his wife is telling him to expel one for the sake of the other. But he heeds her, and he sends Hagar and Ishmael packing. Into the desert, hungry and thirsty, they stumble. The scene is confused, Hagar weeps and moans, unable to care for her beloved, her only. The only thing she has at her disposal is to pray for a miracle. She leaves her son there, parched and starving. She throws her hands in the air, she calls out to God.
וַתֵּלֶךְ֩ וַתֵּ֨שֶׁב לָ֜הּ מִנֶּ֗גֶד הַרְחֵק֙ כִּמְטַחֲוֵ֣י קֶ֔שֶׁת כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֔ה אַל־אֶרְאֶ֖ה בְּמ֣וֹת הַיָּ֑לֶד וַתֵּ֣שֶׁב מִנֶּ֔גֶד וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ׃
and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.
But a miracle does come. God hears Ishmael, not Hagar. This confusion stumps earlier commentators but makes sense to me. Hagar prays from desperation and a lack of hope – so overcome by her circumstance. Maybe Ishmael, insulated from dire prognostications as a child is wont to be, is able to call out to God from a different place.
וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֮ אֶת־ק֣וֹל הַנַּעַר֒ וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶל־הָגָר֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם׃
God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Grief is real – grief is blinding. When we are inside of it, we cannot see beyond it and it would be reckless and inappropriate to ask someone to try.
I have a few friends who live in California and I’ve spoken to them twice in the past couple of weeks. Each time, the fires that are raging are worse, wreaking still more havoc in their lives. Between COVID – where any socialization beyond their immediate family has to happen outside, and the fires – where the smoke and air quality forces them to stay inside, they feel frustrated, trapped, uncertain of when or if this will end. The NYT daily podcast was reporting on these fires and how the people who lost their houses were immediately rebuilding in the same spot. They named the tension between the need for long term planning in the face of a problem that simply is not going away, and the fact that “The moment right after a fire happens is the worst possible time to push for a change” the reporter said. When people are in the grief of sudden loss, all they want to do is get back to the way things were. It is nearly impossible to ask people to see the bigger picture from that vantage point.
The power of the chagim is that they allow us to approach these unanswerable questions from a distance. The suffering and uncertainty we liturgize is, in a sense, abstract – hovering over us, possible, but God willing for most of us not real and present in the way it was for Hagar, or for the woman I visited in her cousin’s hospital room. If we are in grief, feeling sad, angry, confused… we are exactly where we need to be. And for some of us the chagim allow us to face the inevitable losses in life while holding strong to the ethos of personal agency. We don’t have to be flattened by the possibilities that lay before us, crying out “why?” Rather, we begin from the premise that we have control over our actions and our behavior.
The people of California, Oregon, and Washington must be in shock and grief right now. They are like Hagar and like the woman in the hospital – overcome with suffering and unable to cope. We look on from the relative security of our coast and wonder “why” – is it global warming? Is it poor management of the ecology of the forest floor? Is it one politician, or another? Is it all politicians and all these things at once?
The truth is, none of these questions rebuild a house. And even if they did, rebuilding a house doesn’t necessarily mean you have rebuilt a home. Many of the problems we are facing in 2020 are what planners and policy makers have come to call “wicked problems,” They are so complex, so intertwined with other conflating and conflicting causes and concerns, that there is no determinable stopping point for them. These wicked problems (of which I can think of a few that are plaguing me at any given moment) leave us feeling totally disempowered, wanting to stand at a distance, like Hagar, so that we don’t have to stand by watching the things we love suffer.
When Honi was in the hospital, at first I couldn’t make sense of the huge machines that were suddenly running his body, taking on the work of his organs. Why would God make him sick at all if God also created the humans who created the machines that could save him? But then I started to think about the machines as Angels. I never understood Angels before, but in that moment it became clear. Angels are every small step we take towards believing that something else is possible. Those small steps may add up to life saving technology, they may be the planting of a single tree that fixes carbon in our atmosphere for decades, they may lead us across our lawn to a conversation with our neighbor who has a lawn sign we disagree with, or to dig a well so that someone will have water when they need it most… Angels are what we make when we step towards our power and offer whatever small thing we can.
וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים … אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא־שָֽׁם
and an angel of God called to Hagar…“What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Fear not, God hears you where you are.
We can each take part in making Angels. What we have to do is take whatever small step we can in the moment when we are able, so that the angel is there for eachother when we are in need.
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם וַתֵּ֜לֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּ֤א אֶת־הַחֵ֙מֶת֙ מַ֔יִם וַתַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּֽעַר׃
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.
Our chapter ends with a seemingly disconnected encounter. Abraham reproaches Abimelech for the wells of water that were seized from him. It got me thinking – maybe the well that saved Hagar in the desert was not a miracle in the sense that it appeared from nowhere, the miracle was that Abraham had been digging wells all along so that they would be there when they were needed most.