Recently, my five-year-old son Jeremy had been waking up at night. One evening before bed I asked him why he had trouble sleeping. He said he was afraid of monsters. To calm him, I explained that there were no monsters, but Jeremy insisted the monsters were real. Then, I responded with the first idea that popped into my head. I took a stuffed dog from the closet and told the dog to bark if any monsters come and scare them away. Jeremy hugged the dog and slept well that night. On subsequent nights, I repeated these instructions to the dog and Jeremy continued to sleep well.
I wondered why this approach worked. Jeremy surely knew as well as I did that the stuffed dog couldn’t bark. Why did this idea quiet his fears?
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of someone facing terror and finding comfort. The parshah, called Lech Lecha (Go forth) tells the story of Abraham and Sarah’s journey from their birthplace in Haran to make a new home in Canaan. However, the parshah also tells the story of a second journey – that of Hagar (Sarah’s handmaid) who fled into the wilderness.
At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child. Thereafter, Sarah began to treat Hagar harshly until she ran away. In the wilderness, an angel of God found Hagar by a spring, called her by name and asked, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar explained her problem. The angel then promised her that she will have a son named Ishmael (which means God will hear) because “God has heard your suffering” and that she will have countless descendents. In response, Hagar named the place where the angel spoke to her “El-roi” which means “God sees me.” Encouraged, Hagar returned home.
Interesting, the angel of God didn’t do anything to change Hagar’s situation. The angel didn’t provide any physical protection or miracles. The angel just heard her anguish and offered hope. The angel reaffirmed that Hagar’s pain was real, agreeing that Sarah’s treatment was “harsh.” Most importantly, the angel made Hagar feel seen, heard – and significant. The angel taught Hagar that she was not merely Sarah’s mistreated handmaid; she was the mother of generations to come.
In reflecting back on Jeremy’s night-time struggles, the stuffed animal may have served the same purpose. Jeremy knew on some level that the dog couldn’t scare off any monsters. Yet, to Jeremy, the dog represented that I heard and acknowledged his fears. The dog symbolized my love.