By Rabbi Jeremy Schneider
In the year 1054, there was a huge supernova explosion, an explosion that eventually became the Crab Nebula. Astronomers in places as far flung as China, Japan, Arabia and even the Americas recorded the event. Yet strangely, there is no record of this gigantic event anywhere in Europe. How could that be? Is it possible that Europeans did not see it?
One probable explanation is that such an event went against the mindset of Europeans, under the influence of Aristotle and the Catholic Church. To these Europeans, the heavens were rotating spheres that were unchangeable. Heavenly bodies did not explode; they simply circled the earth for eternity. Such an explosion would go against their very belief system and due to this belief system, Europeans did not “see” it.
What we believe affects how we see the world. We learn this same lesson from the story of Hagar and Ishmael in this week’s Torah portion. Depending on how we translate the text, Sarah fears that Ishmael either will be a bad influence on Isaac or actually hurt him. At Sarah’s urging, Abraham expels the child and his mother from his tent.
Hagar and Ishmael wander in the harsh wilderness. They quickly run out of water, and Hagar despairs. She is convinced that there is no water in the wilderness and that the two of them will die of thirst. Ishmael is crying, and she cannot bear the thought of watching him die. She sets him down under a bush, so he will be hidden from her view, and removes herself a good distance. God hears the cries of young Ishmael, and God opens Hagar’s eyes. She now sees that right before her is a well of water. It was there all along, but Hagar did not see it. The boy is saved and will grow up to be a leader of a great nation of his own.
The question is, why did Hagar not see the well of water that was right in front of her? Why did God have to open her eyes? Perhaps she was so convinced that everything was lost, that her son would die, that her mind would not allow her to see the water.
The Talmud says “a man is shown only what is suggested by his own thoughts” (Berakhot 55b). Too often we do not see what is really there, but rather we see what our mind suggests is there.
In the same way God opened Abraham’s eyes to see that there was only one God who is the creator of all. God opened our ancestors’ eyes through the Exodus experience to see the meaning of freedom and of covenant.
When our eyes opened, when we can recognize that what we are seeing is in our mind and is not or does not need to be reality, we experience a paradigm shift. From that moment, we never see the world the same again.
The founding of this country was such a moment, when we came to realize that freedom requires a government that is, in Lincoln’s words, “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
So, if it is true — as the Torah teaches through Hagar — that we see only what our mind sees, how does this impact our daily lives?
First, knowing the power of the mind to shape our perceptions can free us from being trapped by the past and make us receptive to new and higher truths. Never assume that the world is as you see it.
Second, having been set free from the shackles of our preconceptions, we can allow our minds to imagine worlds different from what we see. We can lift ourselves up above our current reality and choose to see the world differently. When we make that choice, we become empowered to change the world to match our new vision.
May we learn to be open to seeing the world in new and unexpected ways. May we strive to see the world as it should be and to do our part to make it so. That’s doing Jewish.
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, Arizona, and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.