God’s Highway Signs?

In his 1991 romantic comedy, L.A. Story, comedian Steve Martin plays Harris Telemacher, a bored Los Angeles meteorologist whose dead end TV weatherman job becomes so repetitive, he runs a daily recording of himself throwing smiley sun faces onto a felt presentation board, and announcing, “Well, sunny and 74 degrees again; another beautiful day in L.A!” Telemacher’s love life is one long series of miserable failures until one night on the San Diego Freeway, when he encounters an electronic traffic marquis that keeps flashing him advice. When Telemacher expresses his bewilderment at such a strange thing, the sign flashes an explanation: “I see people in trouble and I want to help them. You will know what do.” For the rest of the movie, as our hero navigates the messiness of romance, the marquis keeps guiding him with riddles and reassurances, until he finally “gets the girl” and kisses her in the movie‚Äôs happy ending.

What I find intriguing about L.A. Story is the way it explores our very human need to look for signs that tell us what to do or that give us hope when we’re in crisis. In a movie, the hero can pass by a random highway sign whose literal messages directed at him alter his outer and inner directions and change his life for the better. In reality, our wishful or magical thinking leads us to search the things we encounter in our environments for messages that we convince ourselves have been placed in our way by God who is showing us a way out of our crisis or pain. In the end, those things are merely the common things of our lives, randomly placed in our environments, not God’s messengers sent to save us. We alone are left to find the wisdom that will solve our greatest problems.

Yet I wonder if we are really alone. Of course, God doesn’t literally drop signs in our laps at the very moment we need them or suddenly speak with us out of the sky when we could use God’s help. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking to us when we, in the midst of personal trouble, are most in need of help. As Jewish author and poet, Joy Ladin teaches, God may be silent, but we can still hear God whisper through our encounters with other people: the real angels and signs that count the most in our lives.

The biblical story of Hagar and Yishmael that we chant during Rosh Hashanah provides us with an excellent example of this. Under pressure from his wife Sarah, and with God’s explicit approval, Abraham disowns Hagar, Sarah’s slave and sexual rival, and banishes her and their son, Yishmael, to the desert. Imagine Hagar in that wilderness, abandoned and with nothing and no one to help stave off an almost certain death. She has one goatskin of water and a tiny bit of bread which she and Yishmael consume quickly. Knowing that her son is dying of thirst, and terrified at the prospect of watching him take his last breaths, Hagar throws him tachat achat hasichim, which in Hebrew means “under one of the desert shrubs.” The word sichim, desert shrubs, is well placed here, for its singular form, siach can also mean “a conversation” in Hebrew. This implies that an amazing conversation is about to take place. From her deepest place of anguish, Hagar bitterly cries out, weeping. Then something amazing does happen. According to the text, God does not hear Hagar’s cries, but the cries of her son. God sends an angel to open Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a well of life-giving water she had not seen before.

We can take a Torah story like this one very seriously without worrying about taking it literally. What angel does Hagar hear, what signs does she see, that save her and her child’s life? I suggest that the angel who appears to her, the sign that she seeks and finds, is the very cry of her son who up until that point in the text was silent and presumed dead. Summoning the life energy to scream, Yishmael as it were, breaks into the seemingly impenetrable conversation between his mother and her own despair: “I am still here, fighting with every ounce of strength to stay alive. Why are you giving up on me, on us?” A seemingly random cry from her child opens within Hagar a God-given power to see past her ugliest nightmare, to stop despair from sucking her down a hole of death, to open her eyes to the water right in front of them, and to live once again.

We cannot rely upon highway signs or heavenly angels to literally speak to us when we are in pain or distress. We do not have to. God gives us the capacity to invest our seemingly random surroundings with the inner wisdom we already possess. God gives us the insight to listen to the people we encounter and to recognize them as our angels bearing messages just for us. They all help us to see and drink from the bottomless wells of wisdom, insight and courage that are right in front of us when we most need them.

Blessings for a happy Sukkot holiday.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.