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Vayeira 2014

Dvar Torah

Some years ago there was a television programme entitled “The Vision Thing”. It was a political satire about the Conservative Party leadership, although the phrase itself was first used dismissively by George Bush Snr when he was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. Our Sedra today is also about “the vision thing”, and I want to focus my remarks upon the remarkable way in which concepts of vision pervade the text.

My starting point is of course the first word of the Sedra, Vayera, meaning “And He appeared”. This is not the first time G-d appeared to Abraham, but it was the first time He appeared to Abraham as a Jew. Last week we read how G-d changed Abram’s name and commanded him regarding the covenant of circumcision. So Abraham had at once circumcised himself and his family.

Now, a few days later, he was recovering from the Brit, a fully covenanted Jew, when G-d appeared to him whilst he was sitting outside his tent, despite the heat and despite his infirmity, looking to welcome strangers. The form in which G-d appeared to him was unusual, to say the least, for G-d took the shape of three men, messengers, angels. Each had a specific task: 1) to inform Abraham that he would have a son at a time appointed by G-d and to inform him of the imminent destruction of Sodom; 2) to bring about the destruction of Sodom; and 3) to secure the rescue of Abraham’s nephew Lot.

These events are all connected. As a man of the highest principles and morality, Abraham did not need to be warned of the destruction of Sodom. Indeed, he had implicitly warned Lot of the laxity of the city when the two of them parted and chose where to settle—Abraham preferring the stony rocks of the Judean mountains to the luxuriant pastures of the Jordan Valley and the dead Sea. The man who has always stood as the epitome of hospitality had no need to be informed of the fate awaiting the renowned inhospitality of the people of Sodom. But the disclosure was made for the benefit of Abraham’s descendants. Just as he was about to learn that he would soon have descendants, so G-d warned him that the behaviour of the people of Sodom must not become the behaviour of those descendants. Affluence and luxury must never be allowed to destroy the spirit of service to G-d and the love of man. So our Sedra juxtaposes those twin pictures of Abraham before his tent and Abraham watching the downfall of Sodom.

But more than that. Abraham was sitting beneath the trees of Mamre, the Canaanite. He was in the world, the non-Jewish world, awaiting visitors. His hospitality reached out to all, to the non-Jew as to the Jew. His message was that Jewish virtue and piety must be and can be practised in the non-Jewish world. Jews are to perform G-d’s will in the world that He has made, and G-d is ready to appear to man, even in the midst of that non-Jewish world.

Thus the opening verses describe Abraham’s humanity and G-d’s recognition of that humanity, even as the Sedra continues by describing Sodom’s inhumanity and the justification for its destruction. Man’s relationship with G-d does not require abstinence, asceticism or withdrawal from the world. So Abraham’s greeting to G-d was to busy himself and his family in preparing for G-d’s comfort and refreshment, in the person of His three messengers. Or put another way, by acts of human kindness Abraham continues to serve G-d. Even if the three visitors had been only mortal men, Abraham’s communication with G-d continued even whilst he continued to serve his guests. G-d is revealed first and foremost in acts of human kindness and the performance of Mitzvot.

I have dealt at some length on this first appearance of vision in our Sedra. But let us move on. We can pass over the twice repeated use of            (“and he saw”) in chapter 18:2, when the men appear and Abraham runs to meet them. The next reference is in chapter 18:21, when   G-d says, “I will go down and see” whether the outcry from Sodom justifies its destruction. Here is an important message. G-d has already sent His angels to bring about the destruction of Sodom: they have already scanned the city, looking down upon it in earnest, searching scrutiny. Even so, G-d wished to see once again whether there might be some way in which the city merited saving. G-d’s decision was therefore suspended whilst He Himself went down to see what judgment the people of Sodom merited. From here one derives not only the principle that a judge must investigate the circumstances of a case as assiduously as possible, but also the principle that a judge should seek out every possible excuse for exercising leniency—two principles that Jewish judges have always upheld throughout the ages.

I pass over Abraham’s unparalleled intercession on behalf of the people of Sodom, in order to note the opening of Chapter 19. Here too a man is sitting as the angels arrive. But Lot is sitting in the gate of a city. He too is respectful when he sees the angels and offers them some hospitality. These qualities characterise the nephew of Abraham, even if he is unable to recognise G-d in the angels. But no doubt Lot’s inward vision and offer of hospitality as he sees the men mark him out as the one righteous man in the city who is worthy to be saved. It must have taken considerable courage for Lot, sitting as he was in the gate of the city, and therefore one of its foremost citizens, to contravene Sodom’s basic law of inhospitality. Lot’s ability to recognise the visitors is in contrast to the men of Sodom who are struck with blindness. The word used in this context (“Sanverim”) is not the usual word for blindness, but is used in only one other place in the Bible, referring to the time of the prophet Elisha. It denotes a moral and spiritual blindness, as well as physical blindness.

The next time we come upon the concept of vision is after Lot and his family have fled from Sodom. Interestingly enough, the Torah does not use the word                in respect of Lot’s wife, but the morally neutral                   (“she looked back”—19:26), but without necessarily seeing. It was Abraham who saw. Rising early in the morning, as was his wont, he set out for the place where he had stood before the face of G-d. There he looked down, earnestly and searchingly, as the angels had done: the Torah uses the same word                    (19:28). And Abraham saw. But what did he see? He saw the destruction that G-d had foretold, and he understood that this was the penalty for the evil wrought by the wicked of Sodom. There is also a parallel between Abraham’s vision here, which saw “the smoke of the land rise up like the smoke from a lime kiln”, and his vision at the time of the Covenant between the Parts, when it was as though ”there was a smoking furnace”. But that was a vision in the night, and this a vision in the cold light of day.

Then Abraham goes to the land of the Philistines, whose king Abimelech takes Sarah and is threatened By G-d with death. When Abimelech asks Abraham why he had not said that Sarah was his wife rather than his sister, he asks “What did you see that you did this thing?” (20:10). Abraham replied that what he saw was the absence of fear of G-d. He saw the godlessness of the non-Jewish world of the Philistines where, without the fear of G-d, he could fear death because of the beauty of his wife. It is notable that the word for fear              is very close for that of vision. What Abraham was in effect saying was that without the vision of G-d men are likely to follow the desires of their hearts. And lest one be tempted to criticise Abraham for being economical with the truth—as he explains, Sarah was his half-sister as well as his wife—it may be that he felt that, at whatever cost, he must avoid risking his life, if only to fulfil and demonstrate to the world the miracle which G-d had promised, namely the birth of his son.

After Isaac’s birth, there is a curious incident where Sarah sees Ishmael mocking Isaac. It is this that causes her to tell Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. What is it that Sarah saw which was so significant as to justify Hagar’s expulsion? We should note that Sarah did not just “see” Ishmael; she had vision and could see through him. She saw the corrupted nature of his personality. Hirsch describes Ishmael as displaying a dichotomy in his character, which enabled him to absorb Abraham’s ideals but he did so with contempt. Whilst the world may have laughed at these ideals, Ishmael                (intensive form) treated them with outright mockery. Rashi described Ishmael as engaging in the three cardinal sins (idolatry, murder and adultery), each of which is described elsewhere in the Bible with the word          

Another explanation is that he pretended to play with Isaac, but shot arrows at him so that he, Ishmael would become Abraham’s heir. Yet another explanation is that he was inducing Isaac to commit sexual immorality. And although Abraham found it displeasing in his eyes to cast out Ishmael, G-d told him to listen to Sarah, whose vision and insight on this occasion were clearly more profound.

So Hagar and Ishmael went to the wilderness, where again the concept of vision arises. Hagar separated herself from Ishmael, so that she would not have to see the death of her son. And when an angel spoke to her, she opened her eyes and saw a well. The well of course had been there all the time, but Hagar required G-d’s help to see it. As Sefat Emet pointed out, the resources a person needs in order to carry out G-d’s mission on earth are always present; one need only have open eyes to perceive the truth and understand what one is expected to do.

Finally our Sedra brings us to the Akeida, that pinnacle of Jewish faith and one of the most difficult episodes in the Torah to understand. I just wish to explore the relevance of the concept of sight and vision in this final chapter of Vayera. First of all, G-d tells Abraham to go up to the land of Moriah. This is the first mention of the word Moriah, which tradition tells us was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Mount Moriah is the mount of Divine Appearance, as its very name indicates. Not only does it derive from the words for seeing and appearing, but it also contains a play on words in that the word               , from which we derive the word Torah, denotes teaching. Abraham’s act on the mountain would become a teaching for his entire people, if not for all mankind. It may be that this awareness would sustain Abraham in carrying out the task which he believed was entrusted to him, namely to sacrifice his son.

Once Abraham comes to the land of Moriah, it is no coincidence that he alone can see the place from a distance, and he leaves his two attendants behind him. Only the true man of faith, one imbued by the highest moral ideals, can approach the mount of Divine Appearance. The ordinary man of the world may reach the foot of the mountain, but only the divinely-inspired can reach its heights—and not even that is possible in contemporary Jerusalem.

Then Isaac asks where is the offering, to which Abraham responds that G-d will see for himself the lamb. G-d will have the insight to choose the right lamb for the offering. And with this acceptance of the divine insight, Isaac was able to approach the mountain in the same spirit as his father: the two of them could walk together.

As we know well, once Abraham had shown his willingness to offer up his son, and G-d told him not to harm Isaac, he lifted up his eyes and saw at last the ram caught in the thicket. As with Ishmael in the desert, so too the ram had been there all the time—tradition says that it had been created at the beginning of the world, but it was only now that Abraham could see it. And he had the insight to realise that just as he would offer the ram on Mount Moriah, so that place would enshrine the Holy of Holies and the altar of the Temple where his descendants would offer their sacrifices.

The essence  of the Akeida is the mutual insight of G-d and man. Abraham sees the reality of G-d, and himself exemplifies that reality, just as G-d confirms that day that He sees man by seeing Abraham. G-d sees the inner reality of Abraham’s soul, while Abraham understands that G-d is a G-d of mercy, love and promise. In Martin Buber’s words, the Akeida exemplifies the mutual relationship between G-d, who makes demands in order to provide blessing, and man, who receives the highest blessing through his willingness to make the supreme sacrifice. Here is mutual insight, mutual vision.

Hence the significance of the name which Abraham gave to Mount Moriah, namely Hashem-Yireh (“the Lord will see”). So Abraham proclaimed the                      (“teaching”) which the memory of the event on Mount Moriah is to proclaim to his descendants. G-d will look on this place and recall the events of the Akeida and the pinnacle of faith of which man is capable. Hence, incidentally, the enormous relevance of this passage on the annual Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashana.

The name of the place was, according to a midrash, Shalem, so called by Shem, the son of Noah. After the Akeida Abraham called it Yireh, and G-d synthesised the two names, calling it Yireh Shalem (“He will see perfection”) and finally Yerushalaim (“They will see perfection”). So the events on the mountain have become bound up with the destiny of the Jewish people through the ages, as epitomised in the destiny of our eternal capital. By bringing together G-d’s insight with that of man, our Sedra teaches us of His vision of us and His insight into our lives and souls. As Vayera epitomises, whatever happens in the world, Hashem Yireh (“G-d will see”). That is the eternal significance of the offering on Mount Moriah.

Neville Nagler

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