Noah Leavitt
Noah Leavitt

Finding What You’re Not Looking For

On Shabbat, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. One of the indelible images from the aftermath of the attacks is that of hundreds of search and rescue personnel and dogs looking for survivors in the wreckage at Ground Zero. The search began with high hopes but after two weeks the tragic reality set in. There were no survivors to be found. In that time, rescue workers and search dogs had to work through brutal conditions, but the greatest challenge was the frustration of searching and not finding. “When [search and rescue dogs] train, they don’t search for hours without finding anybody,” one handler said. “You need to remind the dogs every so often that they do get to win.”

Rebbe Yitzḥak explains in the Gemara that if a person says to you: I have searched and not found, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not searched but nevertheless I have found, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have searched and I have found, believe him.

It’s easy to understand why one shouldn’t believe a person who says they found something or attained a goal without putting in any effort on their part. And similarly, it makes sense that we believe a person who says that it was only after an arduous effort and searching that they found what they were looking for. But what of Rebbe Yitzhak’s first claim: that we shouldn’t believe someone who says they searched and did not find anything. Isn’t this the case of the 9//11 dogs and countless others who have struggled only to come up empty-handed?

On Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Hagar and Yishmael being cast out of Avraham’s camp. The Torah tells us that Avraham gave Hagar bread and a pouch of water before sending her out into the wilderness where she וַתֵּ֣לֶךְ וַתֵּ֔תַע בְּמִדְבַּ֖ר בְּאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע went and wandered near Beersheva. There’s is unusual contradiction in this verse: וַתֵּ֣לֶךְ means to go while וַתֵּ֔תַע implies wandering without direction. What was Hagar looking for when she left Avraham’s camp?

Some of the Meforshim, the commentators, explain that the juxtaposition of these two words indicates that Hagar was going to Beersheva, even then an important oasis and trading center, but that she became lost. Hagar wandered in the desert searching for the one goal she had in mind. However, when the water ran out and the heat overtook them Hagar could go no further. She placed Yishmael under a bush and cried out “Let me not look on as the child dies.” At the moment the Torah explains, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” But how could it be that somehow, she hadn’t seen this well that lay just before her even as her son was ravaged by thirst? Was the appearance of the well some sort of miracle?

Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, a 19th century commentator better known as the Malbim, explains that the well, in fact, was always right in front of Hagar, but she was not in the right frame of mind to see it. Hagar was searching for one destination, one goal, Beersheva. It offered the promise of safety and security. But she was so focused on finding Beersheva she failed to notice the well that she had discovered which lay right before her.

Hagar is an example of one who says they have searched but not found. Hagar did in fact find something, a well, just not what she was looking for. As a result, she overlooked the well entirely.

The search dogs that worked at ground zero didn’t find any survivors, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t find anyone. One handler recalled that a firefighter came up to her, kneeled down and started petting her dog. He said, “You know, I don’t really like dogs… [but] my best friend loved dogs; he had a golden retriever himself. My best friend is somewhere out there,” and he pointed to the remains of the twin towers. The dog couldn’t find this firefighter’s best friend, but the dog still uncovered a piece of him and connected them. This was, unfortunately, lost on the dogs. They struggled with motivation when they searched and didn’t find what they were looking for. In response, their handlers would, from time to time, stage mock rescues so they would feel as if they had found someone.

Too often we act like Hagar or those 9/11 search and rescue dogs. We have a single goal or destination in mind that we are looking forward to or working towards. If our efforts do not bring us there, we feel as though we have failed. Yet, the Gemara tells us not to believe someone who says they have searched and yet not found, because that is never the case. Instead, we must strive to appreciate what we have uncovered even if it is not what we set out for. We search for a return to “normal” but fail to recognize God and the moments of holiness that we have found. We have to see and appreciate the well that lies before us even if it is not Beersheva. We can overcome whatever challenges lie ahead if we are able to recognize all of the discoveries we make along the way. May this be a year of health and happiness and may we all find what we should be looking for.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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