When she noticed a man approaching her tent, she saw that he was thin with a modest set of shoulders that hunched a bit, but exuded strength. And a soft jawline. She knew that jawline, that kind face. Could it really be? It had been so long. So much had transpired. Perhaps her mind was playing tricks. But that jawline. She knew that soft jawline, that kind face. Could it really be? Could it really be the son of Abraham? Not her own son of Abraham, Ishmael. Could this man be Isaac?
It was after all those things, achar ha’dvarim ha’eileh, that Isaac journeyed to Be’er L’Chai Roi/ בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י (the well of the living One who sees me), to the Tent of Hagar, his mother’s handmaid whom he had loved. But it had been so long. So much had transpired. Would she recognize me? He wondered.
And she did.
One of the last times Hagar saw Isaac, he was but a small boy playing with Ishmael. But Sarah, as she often did, found fault in Ishmael. “You’re not playing,” she accused, “you’re teasing him, you’re roughing him up.” So when Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael off at Sarah’s bidding into the wilderness with only a skin of water, Hagar looked back only once. She saw Isaac curled up in Sarah’s lap crying. Tears pouring down that soft jawline. A kind face like that she could never forget.
After all those things, Hagar never imagined she’d see Isaac again. “How are you, my boy?” She asked, even though he was now a man. “How are you... after all those things?”
The words and stories that poured out of Isaac were as if a well overflowing with emotion, drenched in memory, coursing with questions.
“Didn’t Ishmael tell you, Hagar?” He asked. “We buried our father, Abraham, together in Machpelah and I told him everything there. Everything that happened on Mt. Moriah: how my father had me carry the wood myself; how our one God told him to bind me on an altar; and how he did. It was a ram in the thicket that saved me. Abraham went home after that. But I had to get away. I maybe even a little bit understand it all now, but I had to get away then. And after all those things, after this long journey, it was you I wanted to see again, Hagar, in this place - Be’er L’Chai Roi. After all those things it is this place - this well of seeing and being seen - where I wanted to be."
The words and stories that poured out of Isaac in this Modern Midrash story are from the Genesis narrative Akedat Yitzchak, known as the Binding of Isaac. Traditionally read during these High Holy Days, Isaac’s story - a story of all those things - is a story of pain and loss, abandonment and anger, regret and eventual recovery. It intertwines with the story of Hagar, whose own journey is one of estrangement and abandonment. In her story of being cast out into the wilderness, Hagar, the Ger, is a stranger among a people not her own. But she was and is wise. After all those things, her hair grayed, her skin browned by the sun’s rays... “Isaac,” Hagar asks, “How did you do it? Where have you been? After all those things you faced in your life, how did your soul become whole again?”
With all the things we face in our lives, how do our souls become whole again?
We all have moments in our lives here our souls are not whole, where Be’er L’chai Roi - the wells of being seen - run dry, where the Be’er, the well, becomes a B’or, the Hebrew word for pit. We have moments in our lives where it seems as if we are in a pit of darkness or emptiness. While the stories that lead us to find ourselves in the abyss may differ, and in spite of hierarchies of suffering, most of us have some story of personal catastrophe: feelings of failure when we were sure we’d succeed; painful grief over the loss of a loved one; distrust from an experience of betrayal or deception; fear of separation or abandonment; episodes of depression and anxiety; the pain of infertility. The loneliness of being unpartnered or being partnered with one who does not see us; frustration over losing sight of our goals; distress when our commitments no longer evoke passion; wishing things could be different.
And if we don’t know those personally, we know them globally. We know the soul breaking that occurs when leaders fail us; when weather patterns drench and soak us; when waters or the eruption of tectonic plates destroy our memories, wreaking havoc on our lives. We know the soul breaking that occurs when the lives of some are prioritized over the lives of others; when those accountable for keeping us safe are not held accountable when they hurt us instead; when White Supremacists march in Charlottesville; when anti-Semitism is embedded and emboldened deep in the roots of hatred. We know the soul breaking that occurs when it becomes normalized to beat another down in 140 characters or less; when trans people suffer because they are not treated as people; when those whose dreams have only ever lived here in the United States are threatened to take their dreams elsewhere or those who dream to make it here at last but cannot - we know the soul breaking that occurs.
The wise Hagar asks us: With all the things we face in our lives and in our world, how do our souls become whole again?
“How did you manage?” Hagar asked Isaac. “Where have you been? What have you done?”
“I studied. I prayed,” Isaac answers. “I spent time outside. I spent time alone. I wondered and I wandered. And I searched.”
Rabbinic Sages teach that after the trauma of the Akedah, and then his mother Sarah’s death, Isaac took a leave of long absence from his family. In the Torah text, we barely hear a word from him. Some commentators actually suggest this silence was a permanent and final departure, that that trauma was so painful that he died of fear. Others imagine he was blinded.
Other commentaries envision that it was neither death nor illness, rather Isaac’s departure was a multifaceted journey of resilience and recovery. After the Akedah, Genesis Rabbah teaches that Isaac went to study in a Beit Midrash, a house of learning, drowning his sorrows and his past in the books and traditions of our people, immersed, too, in a community of learners and seekers.
At another point on his journey of resilience and recovery, Genesis describes: וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה, Isaac went out walking in the fields. 11th century commentator Rashi teaches that this was not just an ordinary walk in the fields. Rather, Isaac has gone to the fields to meditate and pray. 15th century Sforno agreed: it wasn’t a nature walk, rather Isaac had detoured from his regular path out into the fields in order to pour out his heart to God in prayer. Other commentators disagree: perhaps it was a moment of soulful prayer, but Ibn Ezra teaches that it was equally a stroll in the fields to enjoy nature and its restorative powers.
The first steps in Isaac’s journey of resilience followed a pathway of study, learning, and seeking: taking steps towards developing a spiritual practice, of being in communion with nature, finding moments of meditation and breath, discovering words of prayer - be they gratitude or anger - and seeking out connection with a presence greater than himself.
Her hair gray, her skin browned by the sun’s rays, Hagar reflected on what Isaac had shared. “And then what…” she asked again, “is there more? Is there more that you did to bring your heart back to wholeness again?
“There is,” Isaac answers. “I wandered. I searched. And I fell in love. Seriously, Hagar, Rebecca fell off a camel the first time she saw me. And I reconnected with family, with friends, with community. And after all that, I remembered you and what you had gone through. And I came here to see you.”
The Sages teach that when Rebecca first saw Isaac she did indeed “alight” from her camel – a nice way of saying she fell off. While this biblical moment is unlikely the origin of the idiom to ‘fall in love,’ this is the first instance of love in Torah. We learn that Isaac was comforted by Rebecca, being bound up with her in loving relationship.
Comforting, too, were moments of reconciliation. When Isaac and Ishmael meet to bury Abraham, the word teshuvah appears in Midrash. There is repentance, perhaps apology, and a returning to the natural order of brotherly connection.
“It was all of those things, Hagar, that brought my heart to whole again,” Isaac said. “The study, the seeking, the praying, the meditating, the beauty of nature. Finding my brother. Finding love. And after all those things,” Isaac continued, “I remembered you and what you had gone through. And so I showed up here, Hagar, Be’er L’chai Roi, in this place, this be’er, this well of seeing and being seen. So I could see you.”
Isaac discovered along his journey that he could be alone with himself. He could be self reliant and resilient. He could even bear witness to his name, Yitzchak, finding laughter again. But it was in showing up to relationship with others - whether community, intimacy, or family - where he felt most seen.
On his journey, sourced from his own pain of being Isaac in the Binding of Isaac, he developed an empathy that drew him back to Hagar. He didn’t go back with the intention only to tell her the story of his pain or only the story of his journey to resilience. He went back, he showed up, so he could bear witness to hers. He want back to tell her, “I see you Hagar. Our stories are not the same, nor are our journeys homeward bound, but we are bound together in this place of seeing and being seen. This well here - truly overflows.”
When our souls are broken, when our society is broken, how do our hearts come back to wholeness again? Where does our resilience come from?
You can read all the books on resilience ever written. So many powerful, poignant stories of self, struggle and change. Stories of study, prayer, time outside, wondering, wandering, searching, falling in love, reconnecting, remembering, seeing, shouting out in protest and showing up for others. All these deep truths those books teach are deeply rooted in the wells of Jewish tradition.
In Modern Hebrew the word for resilience is חוסן נפשי bears the literal definition - חוסן - the strength, the power, the might, חוסן נפשי - the strength and might of the soul. Resilience is the strength and might of the soul.
But in Torah, Hagar and Isaac show us that the strength and might of the soul that gives us the power to become whole again is found Be’er L’chai Roi - at the well of the living Ones who see. It is a place where people show up for one another and say to one another “I see YOU,” gathering together to be resilient, to build resilience, or to bear the weight of those still on their journeys.
May the wells and waters of resilience within each of us nourish our souls, strengthen our community, and bring the broken soul of our world back to wholeness and peace once more.
Sources for the Modern Midrash