The Well is Right Before Us: Reaching Out for Compassion and Courageby Rabbi Rachel Ackerman
There is one moment that I have found myself replaying in my mind over and over again since that Marathon Monday last April. As I stood in downtown Boston in the minutes immediately following the blasts, not quite knowing what had just happened, trying to figure out where to go next, a family walked by me, a mother and father holding onto their child’s hand.
“This is SCARY,” said the little boy who held onto his father. And in a voice so calm that I was almost convinced everything was okay, he replied, “That was just loud noise. We don’t need to be scared because we are all walking together this way.” And off they went.
It was a loud noise. But not just a loud noise. A scary, loud noise—a noise that we adults knew was bad. Despite his reply to his son, was this father scared? I’m going to assume yes. But, in that moment, he couldn’t wallow in fear. Amidst the chaos he opened his eyes and saw that holding on to his hand was a young child who needed to feel safe—who needed to be safe. And with strength and courage he led his family out, knowing that caring for them was his purpose in that moment.
When life gets overwhelming, we are often left feeling alone, disoriented, and frightened. There are times when we just don’t know what that next step ought to be. It is easy to get lost in these moments, difficult to see a way out.
Tomorrow morning at Temple Shalom, along with Reform congregations around North America, we will read the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac. However, in non-Reform congregations the traditional reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is not the Akedah (which is read on the second day), but the preceding chapter where God remembers Sarah, despite her old age, and she conceives Isaac. Although it is not in our minhag, our tradition, to read this chapter tomorrow, tonight I want us to bring our attention to a piece of this story about Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden.
Hagar did not lead an easy life. She was constantly tormented by Sarah. As Sarah struggled with her barrenness, she convinced Abraham to have a child with Hagar, and thus Ishmael was born. But, Ishmael’s presence distressed Sarah. When Ishmael was a young child, by a miracle, Isaac was born to an elderly Sarah. And after Isaac had been weaned, Sarah watched Ishmael playing with Issac. Feeling threatened by Ishmael’s status as the eldest son of Abraham, she ordered Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar away. And so Abraham did.
With only some bread and a skin of water, Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Soon the water was gone and believing death was imminent Hagar left Ishmael under a bush as she sat a bowshot away thinking, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” Then she burst into tears. Hagar, with very good reason, had lost all hope. She knew they were in grave danger. She closed her eyes and began to grieve. She did not, could not, see any other option amidst this crisis. But, even in this grief, some part of her was receptive to the world around her. Because the story continues…
“…an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘…Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Hachaziki et yadaykh bo, Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up…”
When the angel appears to Hagar, the angel says to her, ‘Hachaziki et yadaykh bo,’ which is usually translated as, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand.”
However, Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that, “Hachaziki et yadaykh bo,” ought to be translated as, “Give yourself strength through him!” “Hachaziki et yadaykh”—“strengthen your own hand,” “bo”—“by helping him.” 
Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins understands Rabbi Kushner to be saying, “When you feel bad things coming your way, the most healthy response is to focus your attention on those who are also in need of help. By helping others, you turn away from self-pity and give yourself a purpose to carry on. Hagar can find the strength to survive the ordeal of the desert and of her son’s trauma, by doing something constructive for Ishmael—and thus, for herself!”
Hagar was able to open herself up to God in a moment of utter desperation. She was able to move, for a few moments, beyond her grief, look at her son. And when she was able to do this, her eyes were opened and she saw a well.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro comments on the story of Hagar saying:
“The text says not that a well suddenly appeared, but that Hagar’s eyes were opened so that she could now see it…The well had always been there, but Hagar, paralyzed by fear, despair, and her own sense of powerlessness, was blinded to the possibility of salvation. In calling out to God, she finds the strength to discover what she needs to do. Only then does Hagar see the well.”
Just as Hagar found strength through Ishmael amidst the crisis in the wilderness, so too did the father find strength through his son amidst the crisis in Boston. When we are lost, when we are frightened, sometimes our hands are strengthened through helping others. When we take someone by the hand our eyes are opened to the life-saving forces before us—a well of water, the path out of a traumatic situation. But sometimes when we are in a crisis, it is not a loved one standing before us…sometimes just the opposite. And when that happens, where do we find strength?
This is the time of year when we read the story of Jonah. Jonah has the potential to find strength and purpose through helping others, but he turns away and his attempts for his own self-preservation continuously lead to his demise. God calls on Jonah with the opportunity to speak to the people of Nineveh about their wicked ways, but Jonah refuses. In doing so, he finds himself on a ship in a violent storm and then in the belly of a big fish. The fish threw Jonah up on the shore once he finally agreed to speak to the people of Nineveh.
He was given a way out through helping others. And his work did help others—he saved a city. But, he wallowed in the unfairness of it all—furious that these people could do wicked things but be forgiven in the end. He lives his life angry at the world around him. And although God gives Jonah opportunities to find purpose, to strengthen himself by helping others, he runs away. So caught up in the perceived unfairness, Jonah never even allows himself to take pride in the accomplishment of saving an entire city. He is not like Hagar who is able to draw strength through her son in order to see the well before her. He is not like the man at the marathon who was able to do the same. But, his situation was different—the people of Nineveh were not Jonah’s own children. He had no relationship to them. He could find no reason to love them.
We can argue that Hagar was trying to help her innocent son, that she found purpose in helping someone who was undeserving of punishment, while Jonah was charged with helping a people who seemingly deserved punishment. But, how might the outcome with Jonah have been different if he had looked not only at the people of Nineveh as a whole wicked people, but looked at each individual man, woman, boy, and girl, opening his eyes just long enough to see an ounce of humanity, a glimpse into the souls of a people who, when pointed in the right direction, were ready and willing to change? How might Jonah have been able to find his own purpose through helping each of those individuals? How might Jonah have been less miserable if he were able to see the good he did?
This is not easy to do—it takes great strength to find potential humanity in such inhumane places. But if we can, we have the potential not only to save another person, but also to find our own purpose, and to help ourselves as well.
Antoinette Tuff was able to do just this.
On Tuesday August 20th an unstable young man entered a Georgia school with enough guns and ammunition for yet another massive school shooting. While the students were able to evacuate to safety, Antoinette Tuft, a school clerk, found herself face-to-face with the gunman. And in an incredible act of courage, strength, compassion, and calm, she talked down the gunman into a state of surrender, likely preventing the loss of innocent lives.
Antoinette Tuff somehow opened her heart, eyes, and mind, to take control of a seemingly uncontrollable situation.
When the gunman spoke of not wanting to hurt anyone but having nothing left to live for she talked to him and said, “It’s going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you…OK? And I'm proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’ve just given up. And don’t worry about it…You’re going to be OK.”
In an interview with CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, Tuff commented on these astonishing words, saying, “I knew that I could help somebody…I knew at that point in time, that he needed me. And I was the only person there.”
When Cooper asked Tuff: “Did you know you were capable of this?...”
She responded: “No. I didn’t even know I had it in me…If somebody would have told me I was going to be doing that that day, I wouldn’t have believed it."
But God has a way of showing you what’s really in you…My pastor’s wife did…[this] teaching in a women’s ministry last year. And she titled the message, ‘Push Past the Pain’ in spite of what adversaries and what phase you may go through in life, just continue to push. And so every time things come on, I always say to myself, push past the pain. It’s going to be OK. 
“I didn't know it was in me, but God has a way of showing you what’s really in you… In spite of what adversaries and what phase you may go through in life, just continue to push.”
Antoinette Tuff could have lunged at the gunman. She could have run from her office. These would have been appropriate fight-or-flight responses. But somehow, and she attributes her actions to God showing her what she was capable of, she was able to open her eyes and her mind, and face the person who stood before her in a remarkable way.
Like Jonah, Tuff was in a place where she stared wickedness in the face, where she could have rightfully been angry with God for placing this man before her. But, unlike Jonah, she looked beyond the wickedness and saw a real person—however broken and told him that he was loved and would be okay. She (metaphorically) held him by the hand, helped him, and through this incredible act of courage, was perhaps saved as well.
Thank God, most of us will never have to experience such harrowing situations and I’m not sure I’d recommend Tuff’s tactics. But, we all experience fear, anger, anxiety, and hopelessness at times in our lives, sometimes so intense that it can be paralyzing. It is so easy for us to be consumed by these emotions, to fall so deeply into a sense of helplessness that we forget that we might have the power to push past the pain, open up our eyes and change something by helping another person.
Like Hagar, the father, and Tuff, we must find the courage not to succumb to our immediate grief, but to push past it, finding others we can help, and in doing so opening our eyes to the way out.
Perhaps we are all Jonah at the surface—distressed at times to near paralysis by the unfairness of it all, losing hope and faith in humanity. His responses were rational and Hagar’s actions were not intuitive. In fact, Hagar’s name is similar to the Hebrew word ha-ger, the stranger—how strange are her actions to us?
But deep inside there is that stranger, residing within us, reminding us that sometimes we can’t only rely on the instinct to run or intensely grieve, but we must look beyond ourselves, see the child, see the well.
If we can suppress our instinct to be like Jonah and instead find the courage to be like Hagar, to be like the father in Boston—realizing our loved ones need our help, if we can be like Antoinette Tuff—realizing that we can even help those who are capable of the most egregious acts, we can overcome those moments of frustration and anger and terror to find purpose—in holding someone’s hand, in telling them that they are loved.
Running could have landed both the father in Boston and Antoinette Tuff in the wrong places. Sometimes, we must be counter-intuitive, pause, open our eyes and see what lies right before us: perhaps a well of water, perhaps an troubled person who can only be reasoned with by speaking with compassion, love, and respect.
I wish I could stand up here and say with certainty that 5774 will be a year filled with only joy and happiness. And let this be our prayer. But, we also know that 5774 will likely bring some of us pain and uncertainty, struggle and conflict, and perhaps even feelings of hopelessness. In those moments, let us remember to find inspiration in Hagar, in the father in Boston, in Antoinette Tuff…when we encounter the inevitable challenges that 5774 will bring, let us, even during those challenging times, find purpose by taking someone else by the hand so that we can see the well that has been right before our closed eyes.
May we strengthen our own hands by helping others.
Kein yehi ratzon.
May this be God’s will.
 Genesis 21:17-20a
 D.P.E., p.112-3
 Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Rosh Hashannah Readings: Inspiration, Information, and Contemplation. p. 103, ed. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins