When Hagar is cast out in the desert with her son Ishmael, and they run out of water, and, in despair, she leaves her weeping son under a bush, expecting him to die, the text then reads:
shama Elohim el kol hanaar ba’asher hu sham — and God heard the cry of the boy in the place where he was. (Genesis 21: 17)
Commentators have asked why the text includes the phrase, “in the place where he was.” It would have been sufficient simply to say, “and God heard the cry of the boy,” and one time-honored rule of reading Torah is that extraneous words or phrases in the text are there for us to derive implied and enhanced meaning. So why does the Torah state that God heard the cry of the boy “ba’asher hu sham,” “in the place where he was?”
Here is one interpretation: God understood and came to meet the boy’s need. God didn’t just hear the lad’s cry and observe him from afar. God came to be with Ishmael in the place where he was.
What does it mean to be with someone? To be there? This is a vague and overworked phrase that is hard to define, yet we all have a sense of what it means, for we have all had experiences in which someone heard or saw “where we were at,” and we felt perceived and understood. Each of us can also think of times when we were “there” for someone else, and remember how satisfying and enriching it is to know that you have lightened someone’s load.
We know how profoundly we yearn to be met by each other, especially in our hour of need. We hunger for compassion and companionship. It is food for our souls.
There is a fascinating story from the Talmud (Berakhot 5b) that has lessons to teach about how to be with someone in the place where he or she is. It is a story about Rabbi Yochanan, who has a reputation as a healer. He learns that his friend Rabbi Eleazar is ill, and he goes to visit him. Yochanan finds Eleazar lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yochanan bares his own arm, and light fills the room. (Remember, Rabbi Yochanan is known to have healing powers.) Yochanan then sees that Eleazar is crying, and asks why. “Is it because you did not have the time to study enough Torah? Our sages teach ‘one does more and one does less; what’s important is that the heart be directed toward heaven.’” Rabbi Eleazar continues to cry. “Or is it on account that you have not become wealthy? Not every one has the benefit of both wealth in possessions and wealth in deeds, and you are certainly wealthy in deeds.” Rabbi Eleazar still weeps. “Is it on account of children you lost?” Rabbi Yochanan continues. “Here is the bone of my tenth son.” (It was known that Rabbi Yochanan had suffered the terrible and tragic loss of his children.) Rabbi Eleazar continues to cry, and Rabbi Yochanan finally falls silent. Eleazar then looks at Yochanan and says, “It is on account of this beauty that is to rot in the dust that I cry” (because all of us must one day die). Yochanan responds, “On that account you may well cry” — and they weep together.
By and by, Rabbi Yochanan speaks again: “Do you want these sufferings?” (i.e., do you want to get well?) Rabbi Eleazar says, “I don’t want these sufferings, even if my suffering is gaining me merit in the world-to-come.” “Then give me your hand,” says Yochanan, and raises him out of the bed.
Let’s look at the steps Rabbi Yochanan took to assist his friend. What gave Yochanan his great reputation as a healer? First, he came to visit. Rule #1 about being there: show up! There is much written in Judaism on the mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, and the benefits a simple visit can bestow.
Yochanan then bares his arm and light pours into the room. Is that equivalent to turning on the light, which would be an appropriate and considerate gesture? Or perhaps, figuratively, Yochanan is offering his presence and full attention to Rabbi Eleazar (as when we recite in the priestly blessing, “May the light of God’s countenance be turned towards you”).
Then Yochanan attempts to console and reassure his friend, who is suffering and depressed. Yochanan says some profound and touching things to Eleazar, but to no avail. I know this one: I try to make things better before I even know what’s bothering the person. This is usually not helpful, unless you get lucky with a stray shot and hit the target.
Finally, Rabbi Yochanan listens to Rabbi Eleazar “ba’asher hu sham,” where he is at. Eleazar is weeping as he considers mortality: everyone, himself, his magnificent friend Yochanan, all are going to die. Rabbi Yochanan doesn’t try to reassure Eleazar; he doesn’t tell him not to fear death; he doesn’t tell him that all will be well in the world-to-come. Yochanan simply weeps with his friend. He enters the place where words don’t matter, where time is forgotten. He joins his friend with compassion and stays with him, in the place where he is.
We all know this mysterious and blessed place, even if we don’t get to experience it often. When someone truly meets us and joins us, there is a welling up in us of hope that things might improve, that continuing forward is inherently worthwhile.
From this place of communion, Rabbi Yochanan asks Rabbi Eleazar if he wants to get well. Yochanan is not trying to convince Eleazar of anything anymore. He is simply with him, asking him a question. Now Rabbi Eleazar can answer yes, he does want to go on. Rabbi Yochanan asks for Eleazar’s hand. (He is still letting Rabbi Eleazar take the initiative to reach out!) Eleazar gives Yochanan his hand, and Yochanan raises him out of the bed.
By the way, the Talmud then tells another mayseh about Rabbi Yochanan, a much briefer anecdote in which it is Yochanan who falls ill, and Rabbi Hanina comes to visit him. Rabbi Hanina asks, “Do you want these sufferings?” and Rabbi Yochanan answers, “I don’t want these sufferings, even if my suffering is gaining me merit in the world-to-come!” “Then give me your hand,” says Rabbi Hanina. Rabbi Yochanan gives him his hand, and Rabbi Hanina raises him out of the bed.
The Talmud, in its energetic way, interjects: “What? Why does Rabbi Yochanan need any help? Let him raise himself out of bed!” To which the response is, “The healer also needs to be healed.”
We need each other.
There is one last critical lesson in these stories for me. At the end, having determined what Rabbi Eleazar’s need is, Rabbi Yochanan gives him a hand, gives him the appropriate help. For many years I was a great listener, with little follow-through. It took me many years to understand this final step, that after the profound moment of meeting, there is still work to do, there are still real needs that need to be met. Being there for someone operates on both the emotional/ spiritual and the practical level.
Let’s go back to our Torah portion, and let God’s behavior be our guide. God hears the boy’s cry. God goes to him with compassion. Perhaps God weeps with him, as we Jews have often imagined God weeping with us in our anguish. But the boy needs water! So God sends a messenger, an angel, who says to Hagar, “Come, lift up the boy and take him by the hand” — and God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water.
Now we can better understand the verse. God truly heeded the boy where he was at. Emotionally, and materially, with compassion, God was there.
We need each other. We yearn to be met, to be reached out to and to be reached into. It is these encounters that make life really worth living.
We already know how to do this. No one needs to take a course or be certified in order to qualify as a good human being — but it does require time and energy. You can’t microwave food for the soul. You need organic, unprocessed time in which to give and receive. Most of us, myself included, lead lives dense with commitments and schedules. Yet even in the midst of our busy days, we can, if we remember and remind each other, pause and be there when it counts. I invite you now to renew this commitment in your heart: to be there with the people you love, and even with the people who just happen to cross your path.
It’s a New Year: begin now. Let’s love each other well.
—Rosh Hashanah 5756