Recently, my 5-year-old son, Jeremy, began 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 that 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 came into the room. Jeremy hugged the dog and slept soundly that night. On subsequent nights, I repeated these instructions to the dog.
I wondered why this approach worked. Jeremy surely knew as well as I did that the stuffed dog couldn’t bark. Why was this idea successful in quieting his fears?
This week’s Torah portion tells the story of someone facing terror and finding comfort. The parsha, titled Lech Lecha (Go Forth), tells the story of Abraham and Sarah’s journey from their birthplace in Haran to their new home in Canaan. The parsha, however, also tells the story of a second journey — that of Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, who fled to the wilderness.
At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child. Thereafter, Sarah, who was barren, began to treat Hagar harshly, prompting Hagar to run 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 would have a son named Ishmael — the name means “God will hear” — because “God has heard your suffering,” and that Hagar would have countless descendants. In response, Hagar named the place where the angel spoke to her “El-roi” which means “God who sees me.” Encouraged, Hagar returned home.
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 — reaffirming that Hagar’s pain was real, and agreeing that Sarah’s treatment was “harsh.” The angel taught Hagar that she was not merely Sarah’s mistreated handmaid; she was the mother of generations to come.
In my reflection on Jeremy’s nighttime struggles, I realized that the stuffed animal may have served the same purpose. Jeremy knew on some level that the dog couldn’t scare off any monsters. But the dog represented my attentiveness to and acknowlegement of his fears; the dog symbolized my love.
Like children, adults often face our own monsters, which are likewise invisible but no less real. Economic uncertainty and fears for the future can disturb our sleep. Our friends and family, our clergy, and even God, can’t make these demons go away. Yet they can see/hear our pain, and offer hope that times will get better. They can show us their love. And sometimes that’s enough.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She and her husband live in Los Angeles with their two young children.