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Searching for Meaning after Trauma

“There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Though the aphorism may date from the 20th century, the idea that we seek connections when we are most alone, afraid and even traumatized is not modern. It seems to be a hardwired human feature.

We can find comfort in our parents, spouses, and children – as well as belonging to extended families or communities, tribes, and nations. But that is not necessarily all that is asked of us. If, as I would argue, G-d wants us to seek a relationship with Him, then He made us needy, so that we would reach out for Him.

But it is when other people reject us that we are most alone and afraid. It is also when we are most capable of changing ourselves.

In the Torah, the handmaid Hagar, is driven away by Sarah, and she finds herself at a spring in the wilderness. Hagar is alone; far from her original home (Egypt), expelled by her adoptive family, and she does not even seem to have any plan or even hope.

It is in that place that the Torah tells us Hagar met an angel from heaven, who told her to go back to Avram and Sarai, that she would be blessed, and that she is expecting a child, Ishmael.

And then the Torah tells us something that seems entirely extraneous:

“And she called the name of the LORD that spoke unto her, Thou art a God of seeing; for she said: ‘Have I even here seen Him that seeth Me?’ Wherefore the well was called ‘Beer-lahai-roi” (Gen. 16:13-14)”

OK. What of it?

I think this name is actually a clue. The place name is not common in the Torah: Hagar’s experience gives it its first name. And then it is only mentioned two more times (Gen 24:62 and 25:11) – it is where Isaac, years later, chooses to live.

Why?

After the would-be sacrifice (the “Akeidah”), the Torah tells us that Avraham left to go to Beer-Sheba, and he stayed there. But Isaac is not mentioned. The Torah does not tell us where Isaac was – and it does not say even that Avraham and Isaac ever even lived together again. Which is, in its way, quite understandable: how could either the father or the son reconcile what had happened on the mountain and return to normal everyday life? Indeed, since Sarah died at the same time as the Akeidah, Isaac no longer had the same home to go back to (any mere mortal would even have blamed his father for Sarah’s passing).

He could not go home. There was no home. So what did Isaac do?! He went to Beer-lahai-roi. He went to the place that was named because G-d sees people there, and, based on Hagar’s experience, G-d connects to people there.

Isaac was alone. His mother was dead. He had separated from his father, he was not yet married. If he was a normal person, he was also deeply traumatized by the Akeidah. And so he went to find G-d, to go to the place where G-d was known to talk to people, and give them guidance and hope.

And it worked for him. One afternoon Isaac was praying in the field near Beer-lahai-roi, and his prayers were answered: his future wife came to him, creating a new home within his deceased mother’s tent. Isaac loved her; she was his consolation for the death of his mother. And she was his “hardwired” connection to G-d (for Jews, marriage is a prerequisite for a full relationship with the divine).

I have heard countless stories of people finding faith when they were down and out, in places dark and lonely. The Torah is telling us that Hagar and Isaac experienced this, too. And it tells us what to do in that situation: seek to connect. Pray. And look for love.

P.S. All of this, of course, suggests that one possible reason that G-d commanded the Akeidah in the first place was to find a way to connect with Isaac, by making him emotionally and spiritually vulnerable.

Comments are welcome!