Over the past two-plus years, as Covid turned our world upside down, we’ve all felt the loss of what was our normal. Not being about to be physically present for holidays was hard, masks were uncomfortable, but so important. We went through the peaks and valleys of fear to relative calm and back to fear again as variants and surges came and went.
One of the lasting effects of Covid is how we handle physical touch. We’re now hyper-aware of every physical interaction. Whether it’s avoiding a handshake when meeting someone new or the awkward hug while holding your breath, for someone like me who’s used to giving a big hug or a gentle arm squeeze when I’m comforting someone, the early phases of the pandemic were especially hard. It’s only now as we’re understanding more and living with our adjusted reality that I realize how much meaning holding hands can have in our lives.
From skin-to-skin contact for newborns, to adult health benefits like slowing the heartbeat, lowering blood pressure, and triggering the release of oxytocin, the positive effects of touch have been proven time and again. Studies using PET scans have even shown that just holding a person’s hand helps the brain’s response to stress.
Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant and Ishamel’s mother, teaches us this lesson as well in the Torah this week. In this week’s parshah, Vayera, Abraham and Sarah contemplate the son that will be born to them in their old age; Sodom and Gomorrah fall as Abraham bargains with God to save Lot’s life; and Isaac is born, causing a rift in Abraham’s house with Ishmael. Abraham moves forward in making a deal with King Avimelech, and we end with the Akeidah, the test of Abraham as God asks that he offer up his son, Isaac.
When Sarah can no longer handle having Hagar and Ishmael in their home, she sends them into the wilderness. Hagar is alone with her child, feeling vulnerable and a bit scared. In chapter 21, verse 18, God instructs Hagar, “Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand.” Though they’re isolated from their community, God reminds Hagar that they have each other in this powerful moment of human touch.
The exact translation of the Hebrew is closer to “make your hand strong in his.” When we hold each other, when we lift each other, we are stronger. As we’ve all learned over these last years, a simple high five or a gentle arm touch brings strength and connection. The name of our Torah portion this week, Vayera, means “and he saw.” Perhaps this is a reminder that really seeing each other is more than a visual cue. The real value of human connection is to see when someone is in need.