D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

Vayerah:  There All Along, Here All Along

We are quite familiar with the last two chapters of Vayerah, as they are read on Rosh Hashanah.  Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from Abraham and Sarah’s household in order to assure Isaac’s inheritance. Out in the wilderness and homeless, they are soon out of water, and Hagar assumes that they will die. She separates herself from Ishmael because she cannot bear to see her beloved son die, and she cries.  God hears her and sends an angel who assures her that they will not only survive, but that Ishmael will go on to become the father of a great nation.

And then “God opened her eyes and she saw a well with water. She went and filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.” A miracle!  But most commentators see the miracle not that God suddenly created the well for them, but that Hagar’s outlook and perspective changed so that she could see the well that was there all along.

I often think of this image in connection with the hundreds of thousands of young American Jews who abandon Jewish life and their connection to Jewish community after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  The well, or wellspring, of Torah is there, but they can’t see it, because they have gone through a minimal “supplementary” educational system that cannot possibly convey the beauty and depth of Jewish tradition in the limited time it has with its students. So they drift away, not having gained a love of Torah and Jewish life, maybe to come back later, maybe not.

Meet Sarah Hurwitz. Sarah is one of those young people who left and came back. In this limited space I can’t do justice to her story, so read her book, entitled Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life—in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There).

Sarah grew up in Wayland, became a Bat Mitzvah and “left the fold,” as it were. Professionally she became a lawyer, then a speechwriter for prominent Democratic candidates, including Barack Obama, and eventually the chief speechwriter for Michelle Obama. By chance Sarah signed up for an Introduction to Judaism class in D.C., which opened her eyes to Jewish teachings and wisdom.  This led to Jewish meditation retreats, immersion in Jewish study and ultimately to her writing the book she wished had been available to her as she engaged in her search and return.  In it she describes what she considers to be the important elements of Jewish thought and practice. While it is not a memoir, Sarah does describe her “Jewish journey” (an overused but apt expression here).

Hagar opened her eyes to see the well that was there all along.  Sarah Hurwitz opened her eyes to the beauty and depth of Torah and Judaism that she realized had been “Here All Along” but had alluded her.  The book is inspiring and informative, regardless of how strong a Jewish background you have. I have made it the focus of my adult education class in my shul this year, and I anticipate that many other rabbis and educators will as well. I encourage you to read it, and to give it anyone you know—young or not so young—who need to open their eyes to Jewish life and tradition.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz is the parent of Schechter alumnus Nadav Swarttz

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