And the water in the skin was spent and she cast the child under one of the shrubs…and she sat down opposite and she lifted up her voice and wept…and God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water…(Bereishit 21:15-19)
She cast him down beneath the shrub
gazed long upon his shuttered face;
the vein pulsating at his throat
was mirrored by her throbbing heart.
Her eyes brimmed over bitter tears
his face became a swirling pool,
blinking hard she turned away
and lo! the pool became a well.
Her desperation washed away
as rivulets of silver rain
dispel the desert dust;
the dullness of the barren hills
was sown in hopeful hues.
Hagar perceived the well of water which was quite near her but which she had overlooked in her anguish. God performed a miracle not by creating a well, but by opening her eyes to see the life-sustaining resource that was at hand. The Soncino commentary cites the Rambam who notes that the words employed here for opening her eyes, “Vayifkach Elohim et eineha“, are exclusively used in the figurative sense of receiving a new source of knowledge, and not in that of regaining the sense of sight.
Rabbi Binyamin is quoted in Bereishit Rabbah 53, “All are like the blind until God opens (me’ir) their eyes.” The word Rabbi Binyamin uses, also, for opening the eyes, is in the sense of enlightenment.
The Ba’al Chidushei HaRim* taught that we learn from Hagar who suddenly saw what had eluded her previously, that everything a person requires is already there for him, he only needs to be blessed that God will open his eyes to see. And this, he says, was King David’s prayer, “Open my eyes that I may see…” (Psalms 119:18). The Soncino commentary on Psalms observes that the word King David uses requesting God to open his eyes, “Gal ein’ai” means ‘unveil,’ literally, ‘roll away’ whatever obscures discernment.
In Dr Rachel Naomi Remen’s book Kitchen Table Wisdom, there is a chapter entitled “Finding New Eyes”, in which she describes a former patient, Josh, a gifted cancer surgeon, who seeks help because of depression. She describes him as highly disillusioned and cynical, and that he is contemplating early retirement. He seems to be burned out after seeing the same diseases over and over again, and hearing the same complaints on a daily basis. He says to her “I just don’t care any more. I need a new life.” Dr Remen cites Marcel Proust**, who said that the voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new vistas but in having new eyes. She suggests to Josh that he adopts a practice every evening, of reviewing the day’s events and noting in a journal the answers to three questions: What surprised me today? What moved or touched me today? What inspired me today? She wants him to see his world from a new perspective.
Josh is doubtful but agrees. At first, the practice frustrates him – he doesn’t manage to notice anything new and tells her, “The answer is always: ‘Nothing. Nothing and nothing.'” But he is intrigued, for he is someone accustomed to succeeding and asks Dr Remen for a hint. She tells him that perhaps he is still fixed in his old way of looking at his life, and suggests that he might look at the people around him and seek the stories, as a novelist, journalist or poet might.
He doesn’t mention the journal for several weeks although she detects an improvement in his mood during their sessions.
Six weeks later he brings in a little bound book and starts to tell her about the process. It had been hard for him at first. He couldn’t fathom how he was so busy and yet his life was so empty. However, slowly he had begun to find some answers to the three questions. He begins to read her some of the entries in his journal. At first they concern medical issues such as the effects of treatment, but gradually he begins to see things in a more profound way. Dr Remen says she was deeply moved by what he described: “Eventually he saw people who had found their way through great pain and darkness by following a thread of love,… people who had found ways to triumph over pain, suffering and even death.”
Josh recounts how, once he starts to see things differently, it changes him also. He begins to engage his patients on a different level, caring as much about their human struggle as about their medical one. He tells her, “I knew cancer very well, but I did not know people before.”
Dr Remen relates how people start to respond to him in a very different way, and for the first time they begin to thank him and bring him gifts. She says, “He reached into his pocket and brought out a beautiful stethoscope engraved with his name. “A patient gave me this,” he said, obviously moved. I smiled at him. “And what do you do with that, Josh?” I asked him. He looked at me, puzzled, for a moment and then he laughed out loud. “I listen to hearts, Rachel,” he said. “I listen to hearts.”
She concludes, “Most of us lead far more meaningful lives than we know. Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways…We can see life in many ways: with the eye, with the mind, with the intuition. But perhaps it is only by those who speak the language of meaning, who have remembered how to see with the heart, that life is ever deeply known or served.”
*Rabbi Yitchak Meir Alter (1799 – 1866) the first Gerer Rebbe.
**Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past), published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest authors of all time.