Getting ready for Rosh Hashanah this year, I came across a striking phrase in a traditional commentary on the book of Genesis: “We are all blind because a person’s eyes see only what they are allowed to see.” This is a very pious statement in its original context: when it says “allowed to see” it means “by God.” But even when the theological layer is peeled away, the words still make an impact. They speak of blindness not as a physical condition, but as a function of our psychology, and the inconsistency of our perception. The interplay of reality and the mind is far more complicated than a simple affair of our eyes seeing what’s around us. There is a power, the Midrash proposes, that determines what it is in our surroundings that we see or fail to see. By extension, it must be possible to experience the sudden revelation of what was there all along.
I’ve only given you the beginning of the passage. When I read the rest you’ll probably understand why I happened to come across it while preparing for today. “We are blind, for a person’s eyes see only what they are allowed to see. Even though the well had been near Hagar all the time, she only became aware of it when her eyes were opened.” The Midrash learns its lesson on blindness from the story of Hagar that we read in today’s Torah portion. The servant of Sarah, and mother of Abraham’s first child, Ishmael, she is cast out into the wilderness, with Ishmael in her arms, after Sarah’s son Isaac is born. Ishmael is on the verge of dying of thirst, until, by what is narrated as divine intervention, Hagar suddenly notices there is a well nearby.
Why didn’t she see it before? She was not allowed to see it. She was blind.
And then she was able to see.
Va-yifkakh elohim et eyneha va’teyre be’er mayim. This is Bereshit 21:19–God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.
The operative verb here is vayifkakh—from the root pakah—a remarkable Hebrew word encoding an experience that English fails to grasp in a single term. It is the antidote to blindness. More than just the simple act of opening the eyes, it signifies a burst of awareness leading to a heightened perception, a deeper understanding. It is a phenomenon celebrated in our tradition as divine in nature. Barukh pokeach ivrim—blessed is the one who opens blind eyes.
This story is with us today as if by accident. Standard explanations suggest the Torah reading was selected because it relates the birth of Isaac, the first ocassion of Judaism reproducing itself and a fitting tale of beginnings for the start of the new year. One Midrash even claims that Rosh haShanah, the first of Tishrei, was Isaac’s birthdy.
But the story of Hagar takes up nearly half the verses in the parsha, and so we might find ourselves experiencing a shift in our own perception—setting aside the triumphant story of a blessed lineage to focus instead on the account of an individual undergoing a tumultuous experience. Through Hagar, we are given the opportuntiy to meditate on blindness and the opening of eyes, and how these might pertain to the task of the High Holidays.
I’d actually like to being this investigation in an unexpected way, by confessing to you that lately I’ve gotten back into a habit I haven’t really persued since I was an adolescent—reading science fiction. This was a genre that, along with its handmaiden “fantasy”, I used to enjoy quite a bit as a kid, but gave up long ago for “serious” literature, particular modernist realism. Maybe I’ve taken it up again because the contemporary world seems so frequently to bend the line between realism and sci-fi, or maybe it’s just a form of escapism. But for whatever reason, I’ve found upon my tentative return that this type of writing has garnered a new respectability, and, in particularly a new name. Rather than sci-fi, it can now be called “speculative fiction”.
This is more than just the rebranding of a questionable genre with a decidedly nerdy stigma attached to it. Calling such books “speculative fiction” does bestow on them an aroma of literary sophistication, but only by highlighting the nature of their relevance to the human condition, something I imagine serious literature is supposed to touch upon. It’s not just about being swept off dreamily to a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. It’s about using the introduction of imaginative details—whether gadgets, locations, androids, or aliens—to speculate about things; to pose serious dilemmas relating to human experience and destiny. What will the world look like in a few years time? What reaction would such and such an unexpected occurrence provoke from the human psyche?
Quite by accident, in the middle of the summer, I picked up a speculative work addressing the second of these questions, Isaac Asimov’s classic story “Nightfall”. Reb Yitskhok imagines the doom of an advanced civilization through a strange set of circumstances. Rather than the ecological collapse, resource depletion, or nuclear scenarios we might envision if we took a stiff drink and speculated about the demise of our own society, Asimov’s world does itself in out of a rather remarkable form of existential terror over something that, rationally speaking, need not have been cause for alarm at all.
The story takes place on a planet tucked into the orbit of five different suns, meaning that, although there is a variation in the quality of light as these orbs make there way across the sky in varying combinations, this is a world that does not know real darkness. Or at least does not remember it. It turns out that at discrete intervals of approximately 2000 years, the presence of only a single, small sun in the sky coincides with the passage of an uncharted terrestrial body across its face—an eclipse that plunges this world into six hours of night. But there is no clear cultural memory of the event, because whenever it happens the inhabitants become so terrified that they tear their own civilization apart.
As a team of typically Asimovian heroes—that is to say research scientist–puzzle over a set of clues that point in the direction of this periodic cataclysm, they realize in horror that another nightfall is just around the corner. And when it comes, they discover it is not so much the darkness itself that breeds terror; not so much the urge to turn every artifact of civilization into fuel for a fire against the darkness that leads to self-immolating madness. Rather, when the obscuring wash of perpetual sunlight is finally rolled away, something is revealed that they have never seen before: the stars, the heaventree of stars hanging with millions and millions of glowing points of light. The sight of such an immense sky of gleaming light is more than they can bear. They go mad.
I found this image haunting; the stars, which we generally delight to behold, especially when the sky is full of them, conveying horror in their vastness and unfamliarity. For the inhabitants of this speculative world they constitute a break with known reality so overwhelming that it paralyzes the mind. They induce blindness.
I’ve shared this image with you today, because I found, as I reflected on it, that it provided a novel way of penetrating to the emotional core of this passage from Today’s Torah portion:
“She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Be’ersheva. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.”
This is Hagar, at her wits end. Her familiar world has fallen away, and she is confronted with a wilderness. Here it is not the sudden appearance of the stars, but the unforgiving sands of the desert, though in either case it is an awesome, overwhelming, and naked reality; in either case it is an experience of raw exposure to something that baffles the mind. Though at this point it has not yet been deployed in the narrative of the story, I’m tempted to invoke the word vayifkakh here, too. This is also the opening of eyes to what is real, but, as life can be, it is tragic and horrible: eyes opened from blindness as if by the tearing off of eyelids, exposed to new dimensions of reality they can neither bear, nor comprehend, nor escape.
In Asmiov’s story, this horror is unrelieved and you find yourself wanting to shout to the terrified inhabitants of his planet: it’s only darkness! It’s just the stars! The Torah, thank God, is more compassionate. If you feel yourself wanting to yell out: Hagar, there’s a well right next to you!, well, so does God.
In Hagar’s story, there is more to the experience vayifkakh, opening eyes, than just beholding a frightening new aspect of the world. Here, the wilderness itself is not the revelation, but the location in response to which a revelation takes place. As the Midrash says, Hagar initially experiences her desert not as a region of new vision, but as a place of blindness. But the mystery remains: why is this the case? What force prevents her from seeing? What power gives her sight?
I think that the first question—what makes her blind—has a very simple, human answer. She is blinded by the conditions that often blind many of us: habit and despair.
She has been to the wilderness before, after all, and she knows, or thinks she knows, how her relief is supposed to arrive. Before Ishamel was born, she had fled Sarah’s mistreatment, and found herself in the midst of the desert. We read in Bereshit 16: “The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,’ she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ And the angel said, ‘I will increased your descendant so much that they will be too numerous to count.’
We can infer from this passage that the desert was not always so perplexing to her. In the past, she could find her way to a spring. But she never sat beside it long enough to contemplate what would come next. Instead, a voice offered her the solace of going backwards—back into servitude, yes, but also to familiarity, to the known world. She is even promised a very nice reward.
But this time around, the way back is shut. She is not fleeing on her own volition, but banished. The sand and the stars beat down upon her, and she can see no water but the water that she knew, which isn’t there. This is the blindness of habit, the inability to see the present when it doesn’t look like the past.
As for despair, it is sometimes the genuine and dire exhauston of all possibility, but often it is only the threshold of what we believe to be endurable. As her child lies suffering in her arms, two impulses battle within her. One is the urge to relieve his suffering. The other is the pain of seeing it happen, which corrodes her instincts and her faculties, until all she can say, in the very words of the parsha, is “I cannot watch.” And a shadow falls over her eyes, even within spitting distance of the well.
It is not as easy to explain how the miracle happens, but I suppose that’s what makes it a miracle. And I also want to make sure and acknowledge the numerous worthy human beings for whom the miracle does not come—who succumb to circumstance without the rescue of an opening of eyes. But the Torah does offer us a vision of escape from this desperation. I don’t mean so much the matter of how to find water in the wilderness. That’s a useful skill, but better you should ask an Outward Bound instructor about it. I’m referring to the spiritual state of blindness, and Hagar’s sudden emergence from its grasp. If we cannot fully understand how this happens, at least we can parse and analyze it, hoping some piece of it may provide inspiration, should the need arise.
On one level, it is a rather simple example of what they call “true grit”. Before her eyes are even opened, she hears a voice again, but this time it doesn’t tell her to go back. Kumi si’i et hana’ar, v’hakhaziki et yadekh bo. “Get up. Lift up the boy, and strengthen your hands around him.” This is the voice of God as coach, saying: get back in the game. You do not possess the luxury of despair, while there is life in your body.
But there is a deeper level. We have already looked at the next verse: Va-yifkakh elohim et eyneha va’teyre be’er mayim. And the Lord opened up her eyes, and she saw a well of water. When I brought this up before, I failed to note that the verse actually contains two verbs that speak to the functioning of Hagar’s eyes. One of them refers to something that happens to her. This is vayifkah: God opened her eyes. The other is an active verb: va’teyre. She, herself, saw. The God of this story does not show her the well, but only opens her eyes. The divine revelation here, the pokeah ivrim—is not an arrow pointing the way. It is, in a sense, a rescrambling of consciousness. It is a breaking down of the inadequate map of the wilderness we have made in our own minds, the one that cannot show us what we have not already seen. It is an explosion, and in its aftermath, we stand the chance of regaining the lost capacity to look for our water, or, in Asimovian terms, to stand calmly under the bewildering glimmer of the stars.
And what is the point of being here today if not to tempt the stars to show themselves? These are the Days of Awe, after all, when we dare journey into the wilderness; to encounter, on some deeper level, the reality of our lives.
And in so doing, we are invited to consciously retrace Hagar’s steps. Here is where she became entangled in habit. Here is where she cried over the futility of it all. Here is where she discovered her strength. Here is where she lost her blindness. Here is where she found the water to nourish what she loved.