“Insurmountable challenges” are two words that have been used a lot this year.
At first glance, our Torah portion for this Rosh Hashanah morning also contains insurmountable challenges for our biblical figures. For some, it would see that the logical answer would be to give up but instead they moved forward with fortitude.
The Torah reading opens with our matriarch, Sarah, telling her husband, Abraham, that their lifelong maidservant, Hagar, needs to move out with her son, Ishmael. The text isn’t quite clear on why – but biblical commentators assume it is for inheritance protection for their son, Isaac. Abraham doesn’t know what to do so he asks God for advice. Surprisingly, God says that he should listen to his wife and make the mother and son pair leave.
Abraham was obedient to God, so he packed Hagar and Ishmael up with some food and water and sent them out in the wilderness, without protection, without a plan.
They walked for a while and when the water was all gone, Hagar set Ishmael up a distance from herself so she did not have to watch her son die from thirst and exhaustion. Then she sat down and wailed.
This moment in the Torah is so heartbreaking, as a parent, as a human. It almost looks like she is giving up.
However, this year, I see her weeping as her way of moving forward. She had no one to cry out to other than God. Abraham and Sarah have abandoned her. She is unable to care for herself and her child. So, she sat and wept.
We are all going through something difficult right now on top of what was difficult before.
Isolation, lack of childcare, continued chronic illnesses, the worry of getting COVID or actually contracting it, wildfires, loss of jobs and income, loss of our way of life.
We are spent, the challenges seem insurmountable. In an article by Tara Halle called “Your Surge Capacity is Depleted – It’s why you feel awful,” the author writes about the constant demands on our mental capacity to see clearly, to function in the ways that we once were able to and now cause us a great deal of struggle.
We are capable, as humans, to deal with stress and dangerous situations in short periods of time and we are actually very good at it. However, when the stresses are long-lasting like a pandemic, our bodies and our minds cannot keep up. What we are dealing with is ambiguous loss.
What can we do? One way to combat this ambiguity is by recognizing that it is a difficult time, accepting that this is the current situation. In other words, we can cry out, just like Hagar.
The text goes on to say that God heard the cries of the boy and an Angel of God called out to her and asked what was troubling her. The angel told her to have no fear.
It says, “Get up, lift the boy, and hold him with your hand, for I am going to make him a great nation.”
God then opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well. She went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy water to drink.”
We can have the strength and compassion for ourselves to say what is difficult right now. Let’s use these High Holy days as a time to lay it all out, not to dig ourselves deeper into a hole of despair but to take account of what is troubling us. When we do that, we have the opportunity to have our eyes opened to see the resources in front of our faces. To see the resources our community has to offer. To see the resources of our tradition has to offer.
The last line of the Torah that we will hear this morning is the promise from God that Ishmael, too, will become a great nation. He and Hagar made it through and thrived.
The difficulties of today will not be the difficulties of tomorrow. This time of constraint and restriction will come to an end. We will look out on the other side and see from where we have come.