The meaning of life. Thoughts on parashat Lech Lecha.
What is the meaning of a man’s life on an uninhabited island? Or let’s put it otherwise: what would have been the meaning of life of an astronaut who by chance had been lost on the moon, with a supply of food and air for, let’s say, 50 years, but without possibility of communication with people on the earth? The only meaning of his life would have been the hope that a rescue mission would come and take him back to the earth. There would have been no other meaning of his existence.
Indeed, the meaning of an individual life comes from our relationships with other people. Aristotle obviously knew it writing that a man is a social animal and only a God or a beast can live outside of society. This idea is also included in the common view that the meaning of life is life itself. This view can be true only if we clarify it and add that it is about life with its social dimension. We can see it clearly on the example of the astronaut. Thus, it is also not surprising that this common view, which speaks of “life alone”, can irritate people suffering from depression, as something completely meaningless and worthless.
Human life can only make sense if we live in a community. The smallest human community is the family. Family life also alleviates the negative effects of modern individualism, in which, despite its many advantages (like the greatest possibility of expressing individual freedom and independence), “the drama of human existence” becomes much more tangible to us, since we expose our hearts and minds to finitude of our being much more often. The cure for this is love, starting a family and having children. Then we have a chance to permanently forget about the finiteness of our individual being.
In our Torah portion Abraham and Sara are struggling with the same problem. Even though God shows Abraham a great vision:
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. (Bereshit 12:1-2).
soon the fundamental complications come into being: Sarah cannot get pregnant.
And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the LORD has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall be built up through her.” And Abram heeded Sarai’s request. (Bereshit 16:2)
According to midrash Bereshit Rabbah 45:2, quoted by Rashi, Sarah decided to have a son through Hagar because a person who has no children is not firmly established (literally, built up: her name and future are not perpetuated) and is unstable. If so, does it mean that the conception of Ishmael was only meant to build up Sarah? Not at all, as we learn from verses 17:20-21:
As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.
The same promise is repeated again in our next Torah portion, Vayera (in Bereshit 21:18). Ishmael also receives God’s blessing and his conception was also intended to populate the land with the seed of Abraham, with “a small difference” – the covenant between God and the chosen people was reserved only for Isaac and his offspring. It is also known from the verse 16:12 that Ishmael would be a wild ass of a man, His hand against everyone, And everyone’s hand against him; but He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen. What was it aimed at? There may be many complex answers to it. The answer that comes to my mind at the moment is the following: the chosen nation must be constantly challenged by the existence of other nations, so that the Israelites/Jewish people may be aware of their separateness and intentionally remain God’s chosen nation.
God promises twice (Bereshit 17:21 and 18: 10-15) that Sarah will give birth to a son and in both cases even the name of the promised son appears. So Abraham and his first wife already “know” that God’s promise, which will fulfill their desire, will become real. However, they all still live in “a love triangle”. This relationship comes to an end shortly after Isaac is weaned (21:8-12), which causes Abraham’s distress.
Therefore, even though Abraham is considered “the father of all the nations”, since Ishmael and his descendants are considered to be of his seed too (21:13), in fact it is Isaac only, who is his “rightful seed”. That’s the reason the Torah, in another parasha (verse 22:2), speaks about Isaac as of Abraham’s only son. To put it in short, Isaac was a covenantal seed of Abraham, whereas Ishamel was his non-covenantal seed.
But what we can learn from all of that? How can we understand the universal, relevant to people of all times, message of the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar?
Here it is what I would suggest: people have their own plans and great visions, but in a situation when they encounter problems with their implementation, they tend to choose different, alternative solutions. They choose what is given to them, what is within their reach. It often happens that despite the fact that they chose a temporary solution they do not abandon their original, longed-for visions and still think about them, with the hope that they will eventually come true.
When it comes to relationships, people often know that they will not be with each other forever, they often know that they are not meant for themselves. Sometimes they even talk with each other about how it will be in the future when they are not together. Despite everything, they remain in their relationships as if they were to last forever.
However, later often comes the time when their original visions become possible, completely realistic or even within easy reach. Then people abandon their temporary solutions, although often, especially in situations related to love, these are very difficult decisions. That was also the reason for Abraham’s despondency after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, whom he also loved. It is also possible that it was this state of depression that led him to embrace the idea (which was, of course, according to the text, suggested by God himself) to sacrifice the only son that remained with him.
When it comes time to make such difficult decisions, one would often like to simply annul the current state of affairs: relations with other people, obligations to them or promises made to them. In our biblical story, it is God himself who cancels Abraham’s obligations to Hagar and Ishmael.
However, what this story also teaches us about is that temporary solutions also have their own meaning and may sometimes have a deeper, divine one, since we are never completely aware of the far-reaching consequences of our decisions and actions taken here and now. In fact, it was God himself who closed Sarah’s womb to persuade her to act in a different way. Had Sarah not been temporarily infertile, Ishmael would have never been born. Therefore, we should never a priori give up these temporary solutions and passively wait for the possibility of achieving the desired vision or plan; we do not know the course of things and the future, and it often happens that the choice of a temporary solution, allegedly contradictory to our “great vision”, is a necessary condition for making our deepest dreams realizable.