Parshat Vayera 5768: Graduation and Seeing Things

This week we continue the story of Abraham. Abraham is sitting in the heat of the day in his tent. While being visited by God, he sees some strangers, and runs out to them to show hospitality. After a big meal, they tell him that he and Sarah will have a son within a year, which makes Sarah laugh. When these strangers start back on their way towards Sodom, they tell Abraham that they are to destroy Sodom and the other cities of the plain. Abraham has a debate with God if this is a good idea and even bargains down what it will take to save the city. We then cut to Sodom and the experiences of two angels in the Big City, who decide the only one worth saving is Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family. They escape, but not without casualties and misunderstandings. Abraham then moves into the land of the Philistines, and once again uses the “sister” excuse describing his relationship with Sara. After this adventure, Sara conceives and has a son, Isaac, which causes more sibling and maternal rivalry with Hagar and Ishmael. The last major story in this section is, of course, God telling Abraham to go to a mountain and to sacrifice Isaac.

The British potter Bernard Leach once watched the Japanese pottery master Shoji Hamada take a lump of clay, pinch it into a smooth pot and fire it in a raku Kiln within half an hour. When Leach remarked on this feat, Hamada objected: “Thirty minutes? No, it took forty years to make that pot!” Similarly it’s taken thirteen years to write this D’var.

The portion starts on a word which becomes a theme through the piece: Vayera. The root of this word means to see. Seeing things becomes critical in understanding the stories here. In this first occurrence, God appears, he causes himself to be seen. In the second, a verse later we read:

2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground,[Gen 18:2]

Later, Hagar has a moment when she sees something.

19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink.[Gen 21:19]

And at the Akedah, Abraham sees something:

13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.[22:13]

Key to these three places when someone sees is what they see with – their eyes. This should be obvious. Yet, something is done with the eyes in these three cases, lifting up and opening. Is there is difference?

Let’s start with Hagar opening her eyes. We know from the text she is not a happy lady.

16. And she went, and sat down opposite him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. 17. And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation. 19. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad to drink.[Gen 21:16-19]

It is not Hagar’s crying but heard the voice of the lad that God reacts to. Similarly in Psalm 28 we read of King David: Hear the voice of my supplications, when I cry to you… Blessed be the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplications. What is the difference between Hagar and Ishmael? Hagar is self absorbed, while Ishmael prays. In order for Hagar to see the solution which is right in front of her God has to open her eyes. Sometimes we so self limit ourselves, we are so much on our own issue, we cannot see the things in front of us.

It’s a rare event within Torah to have someone actually have their eyes open. Generally its related to someone we might say is an outsider. Besides Hagar, Baalam for example, also has such an experience within Torah. In these cases to open the eyes is when God directly intercedes. My return to Judaism was such an event, as one on the outside. For a decade, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism, even refusing to go to High Holiday services. While on a study abroad program to Rome in early July of 1995 I had a dream. In the dream, A Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a tornado.

All I knew at that time was I needed to look into my heritage more. When I returned to the states, I did begin to look into it. That dream opened my eyes, and brought me back to Judaism. Opening of the eyes is for those who do not believe, but need to.

Unlike Hagar, Abraham has his eyes lifted. This expression is a lot more common. People lift their eyes and all of a sudden see things they didn’t before. In this portion, there are two expressions. In this first, we read he lifted up his eyes(18:2). In the last, Abraham lifted up (et)his eyes(22:13). Grammatically, the first is weaker than the second. The first is all pronouns. We could easily assume God lifted up Abraham’s eyes. The second case is a lot stronger, with Abraham as the subject, and the direct object marker et. Why is one weaker and the other stronger?

The dream above was not my only experience in Rome. A year later, I was back and with nothing to do on the Saturday between classes, I went with some people to the former seaport of Rome, Ostia Antica. Unlike Rome itself, where construction for the last two millennia has destroyed much of the ancient city, the ancient streets of 1900 years ago still exist in the ruins of Ostia including many rather intact remains of restaurants and offices and apartment buildings which went out of business in the 2nd century CE. Walking down these streets, I looked up to see an odd looking capitol in the ruins of a building. It had a menorah, etrog and lulav. I was standing in a synagogue. When I think of it now I still wonder if I stood where many a Rabbis stood after disembarking a ship from Israel en route to an audience with the Emperor, or saying tefilat haderech here on their way home. Three days later, I finally had walked into the central synagogue of Rome and visited the small Holocaust museum. I met a few people who were holocaust survivors, some visiting from elsewhere some now living in Rome. I heard their stories. I heard most of these grand synagogues in Italy cannot even get minyans. I wondered, is this our fate, museums in empty synagogues and ruins?

1. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground,[Genesis 18:1-2]

At the beginning of Vayera, Abraham is recovering from his circumcision. God appears to him, and only after that does he see the three strangers. The weakness in the grammar may indicate Abraham was not acting alone here. God gave a little help in this case, one that the Midrash notes. Abraham was sulking that now that he was circumcised he would have no guests. God replies that before he was circumcised he was only fit to receive the uncircumcised, now he is fit to receive angels, and then he lifted up his eyes to see the three wayfarers. [Gen R. XLVIII:9]

My experience at Ostia and Abraham’s seeing the approaching men are experiences still missing complete commitment. Unlike Hagar, where things are impossible, there is faith, yet still some doubt. By that time I was privately exploring Judaism and Buber’s stories of the Hasidic masters. To actively join a community still seemed difficult for me. Yet the answer seemed much clearer after Italy: I needed to be involved. By Purim, I was attending a synagogue. A year after Ostia I signed up for a beginning Biblical Hebrew class at Spertus College. Abraham and I were alike: we were still working the path out. We needed a little help, and God was there to give that little extra push.

My Hebrew classes led me to take the plunge and enter the Spertus College’s Masters in Jewish Studies Program. It’s been a difficult program, not just in terms of the work load but in my personal, spiritual and professional life. The worst was during the doctoral level class on Jewish continuity. The numbers from the AJIS and NJPS are not very encouraging. Demographic trends put us nearer to museums and ruins, than a thriving culture. The scholarly literature claims the ones to blame the most are our own self destructive tendencies. I wrote the papers and got the A’s always wondering as I wrote if there really was any hope out there. One of these papers I wrote was a model for a new vision of a synagogue to combat the problems and reverse the trends. As I finished the final edits, I attended Shavuot services at a different synagogue, one I had been to only once before for a friend’s farewell party. The first time it did not make an impression. As I spent the evening through the night and then sunrise on a nearby beach at this Tikkun L’eil I lifted my eyes: With a few exceptions, this place was that model.

There are a lot of interpretations of the Akedah. Mine is that Abraham knew the outcome, and that Isaac would not be sacrificed, but he had to do the motions until he saw another solution – he was after the good grade here. That is why he says My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering; in Genesis 21:8. Yet he got to the mountain and didn’t see anything. He’s too busy making sure it all follows the correct procedure, to do what his teacher wanted, and at the same time wondering if there any way he doesn’t have to sacrifice his son. Things are not looking too good as he reaches for the knife…

10. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son 11. And the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. 12. And he said, Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only son from me. 13. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son.[Genesis 22:10-13]

Abraham looked everywhere but behind himself. Only when the angel speaks for the first time, when all the procedures are done, and there is a bit of relief from this tension does he think to look behind himself and there waiting for him is the solution. We learn from the Perkei Avot that the Ram was put there at the twilight of the sixth day of creation.[5:6] The world which God gave us to steward has everything in it already, all we need to know is how and where to look.

When someone opens our eyes, like Hagar we are passive. When one lifts up the eyes it is a personal act, not completely an act of God. Sometimes we have help, sometime we do not. We need to do things to get to that point of opening the eyes, of revelation, of seeing miracle. Miracles are around all the time. The siddur I used at the first synagogue I returned to said it best to be is a miracle. Everything is miracles. If we know what to look for, we will see them appear.

Only after Abraham sacrifices the ram instead of Isaac, we read that the covenant, in the name of God will be fulfilled. It is only then that the trials of Abraham are over. Abraham and Sarah’s want of a child is only fulfilled after Abraham runs out to the strangers. Ishmael is spared dehydration only when Hagar fills a bottle and brings him a drink. It was taking the opportunity that the eyes found that was the key. In each of the three cases we can be given miracles, but what we do with them determines our outcome for the better. When they took action, then they graduated to the next level.

When we understand that, then we graduate. I graduated with a Jewish identity in July of 2005, I graduated into practicing Judaism in July of 2006. I learned a lot in the last few years. As I now graduate with my Master’s Degree, and look forward to July 2008 when I receive my Diploma officially, I now turn my eyes towards action. My learning can help me lift my eye to the opportunities and possibilities out there, but it is up to me to do something with it.

Shlomo Drash’s slogan from Brachot 62a was originally intended as a bit of ironic humor. It is a matter of Torah and I am required to Learn was the first passage of Talmud I ever learned, a joke talking about students barging into bathrooms to watch a teacher’s toilet habits. Yet as I learned in my last class at Spertus, it means something more*. It means that our actions are far more important than our words. As an educator, in everything I do from now on, my actions are critically important to the lesson. And so, with all seriousness I now can say:

It is a matter of Torah and I am required to Learn

*for the full unpacking of the text see the Unpacking Gemara page on shlomosdrash.com

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Posted in Abraham, Genesis, graduation, Hagar, manefesting, miracles, vayera
One comment on “Parshat Vayera 5768: Graduation and Seeing Things
  1. […] my view. That it was the same sign as I got seventeen years ago just rattles me. While I’ve written about this before, there is a bit of my old history that you need to understand what happened this Yom Kippur. […]

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