Cultivating Hope

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Stacy Rigler

At times, it seems light is hard to find. When the clocks change and the weather grows colder, I find myself struggling more often to be motivated to work towards change in our world; to see hope in the world. Last year, a friend recommended a book to me, "The Lightmaker's Manifesto" by Karen Walrond, promising that the author's insights would help me see the light I was looking for.

"There is no one way to change the world. The world changes when we take inspiration from the different forms of good work and light and make them our own," writes Walrond. This quote reminds us that change only happens when we open our eyes and allow ourselves to experience goodness. We gain the strength necessary to create change.

The portion Vayeira (God appeared) provides us with several examples of how we can change our world. This portion contains pain and turmoil including infertility, destruction of an entire community, the abandonment of a young mother and her child, and a test of faith through child sacrifice. Alongside every challenge there are lessons of hospitality, kindness, meaningful dialogue, and courage. God appears amidst the suffering. God is with Abraham and Sarah in their fertility struggle, God is in Sodom and Gomorrah when the townspeople are sinning, God is with Abimelech when he is committing accidental harm, and God is with Hagar and Ishmael when they are expelled to the desert.

In these moments of crisis, we learn how human actions can change biblical events. Let us look at Hagar, forced to leave her home and enslaved to Sarah. When Sarah is barren, Hagar bears Abraham a child. But when Sarah has a child, she evicts Hagar and Ishmael, sending them into the desert. Bereft, Hagar thinks her child will die of thirst in the wilderness. Hagar demonstrates courage and understanding. She holds God accountable, demanding that God see her and her suffering. She cries out to God, and God opens her eyes. At that moment, Hagar sees water that was not apparent before, a way to nurture her child. With that water comes the hope and belief that they can persevere. The water does not provide a resolution to her challenges, but it offers her hope and the path toward change.

If I were Hagar, my anger towards Abraham and Sarah would have consumed me. I doubt I would have possessed the clarity to call out to God, even if God had offered me protection before. I am inspired by Hagar's ability to use her gifts to summon hope and action. I am amazed that her powerlessness did not overwhelm her.

This portion contains multiple stories of destruction and pain, with humans using their abilities to create change. Abraham and Sarah share their hospitality, Lot demonstrates compassion and courage, and Abimelech shows sensitivity and understanding. These are the examples of light that Karen Walrond encourages us to notice. She encourages us to look inward and recognize our gifts and talents, even in a world of pain and suffering. She argues that, without introspection, we will lack the stamina to pursue the fight for justice. In each case, when the humans acted, God appeared.

The Kotzker Rebbe, a Hassidic rabbi, teaches, "Where does God appear? Wherever you let God in." We can let God in by cultivating empathy, compassion, understanding, and courage. We use our skills to do good in the world. When we generate good in the world, we are more likely to be able to see godliness in the world. When we see godliness, we renew our faith and reignite our hope. With hope and faith come the desire and fuel to work for change.

God does not just appear, even in our ancient stories. Our actions create God's presence all around us. Our actions generate light in the dark. This year, I've taken a new look at how to find light in our world and at Hagar. May we all learn from her example, remember our gifts, and use them to notice the godliness all around us.

Originally published: