“And God heard the voice of the boy.”
— Genesis 21:17
The boy is Hagar’s son, Yishmael. But the Torah does not call him by his name; rather, it takes its cue from Sarah, who calls him “the slave girl’s son.” She is angry at the way Yishmael treated her son, Yitzchak. She is tormented by her re¬lationship with the boy’s mother and thus can’t bring herself to utter his name, “Yishmael,” “God will hear.” Back at the beginning of this story, when Hagar fled from the camp, the angel of God told Hagar to name the son in her womb Yishmael. This boy is a disquieting reminder to Sarah that God was quick to heed Hagar’s suffering. Why did Sarah need to wait so long?
Now, Sarah has her own child. Still, she asks Avraham to cast the mother and son out of the camp. God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says. Their water runs out. Mother and child sit apart. She cries but the Torah pointedly notes, “And God heard the voice of the boy.”
God heard — Vayishma Elohkim.
Scholar and translator Robert Alter suggests that if we say the words,Va Yishma El-okim, quickly, we hear an echo of the boy’s name: Yishmael.
Just when it seems that Sarah will be successful in erasing the boy and his mother from her life, the Torah brings them back.
What we forget, God remembers. What we try not to hear, God heeds. It’s harder than we think to erase a relationship — however troubled. Our beginnings resurface. Or perhaps, sometimes, God retrieves the shards of our shattered connections to each other and offers them back to us for fixing.
— Barry Dov Katz
Rabbi Barry Dov Katz writes so beautifully: “What we forget, God remembers. What we try not to hear, God heeds…. God retrieves the shards of our shattered connections to each other and offers them back to us for fixing.”
On Rosh Hashanah, we hear 100 blasts of the shofar. These are the sounds of God’s cry to us: hear, remember, heed, repair.
Tekiah: the blast that awakens us, the blast that beckons us to hear; the beginning note, a whole note.
Shevarim: coming next, broken, shattered notes.
Teruah: sobbing, say the rabbis.
Then, after the shevarim, the brokenness, after the teruah, the tears, we return, tashuv, to tekiah.
Tekiah gedolah: a wholeness even greater than the one with which we began.
The notes of the shofar call to us, loudly and clearly, to repair the “shards of our shattered connection to each other.” They remind us that out of what is broken, we return: Teshuvah is possible. The shofar’s blasts proclaim that wholeness can be experienced once again. They herald hope. They sing of great possibilities.— Lori Koffman
Rabbi Barry Dov Katz’s reflection on God hearing and remembering, even when we humans try not to hear, creates an interesting connection between the story of Sarah and Hagar and our High Holiday experience.
If we consider the High Holidays as a time for changing patterns, we may see ourselves in the experience of Yishmael (Hagar’s son) — whom rabbinic tradition often treated as a stand in for the Arab nations, one of the many oppressing “others” we used to define ourselves. Yishmael of the biblical story experienced laughter, friendship, and brotherhood, and then also rejection and pain. Throughout it all, God heard his voice.
Yishmael’s story reminds us that no matter what paths we have walked down during the previous year, the next year brings possibilities of fresh encounters with the divine and the encouragement that God will hear our voices. At the end of this verse, we are told, “Ki shama Elohim el kol hana’ar ba-asher hu sham.” “For God had heard the voice of the lad where he is.” In our present experience of life as it is, “ba-asher hu sham,” God hears us and accompanies us as we begin over and over again.
— Claudia Kreiman
It’s hard to listen. We get distracted because we are already formulating our response. And though we “hear,” we do not always understand. Even more challenging: We often forget to listen and attend to our own needs, let alone to those of others.
God, though, is the eternal listener. My teacher Rabbi Mychal Springer once taught me that even when no one else is present to listen, we must nonetheless open our hearts and mouths; we must speak and know that God listens empathically. Even when it feels as though we are surrounded by noise and chaos, God hears the kol d’mama daka— the soft murmuring voice from within.
In the story about Yishmael, God pays attention and responds to the cries of the boy, even though they are inaudible. It’s a life lesson. If we can find it within ourselves to believe that God hears even the faintest of cries, we might just be able to start listening more carefully — to ourselves and to those around us. — Corey Helfandemail print