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Ways Of Seeing And Asking

Ways Of Seeing And Asking

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:28 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 18:1-22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37
Havdalah: 5:28 p.m.

‘Should I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” God asks [Genesis 18:17]. It is an odd moment; we are rarely let in on the doubts of God. How can it be that even God, infallible, has moments of uncertainty? Yet, this is not the only time in the Torah that humans are aware of God’s mistakes and moments of indecision. In Noach, it says, “And the Lord regretted that He had made man on earth and His heart was saddened” [Gen 6:6]. The regret God feels in Noach is because “The Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth and how every plan devised in his heart was entirely evil continually” [Gen 6:5].

There is a huge contrast in God’s desire not to hide from Abraham in Vayera and God’s vision of an evil humanity in Noach. This is a parsha called Vayera, “And He Appeared” [Gen. 18:1], culminating in a place called Adonai-Yireh, “God’s appearance,” [Gen. 22:14].

And yet the concealments are as important as the appearances. God does not conceal his plans from Abraham and the response of the human is to question, “How can you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” [Gen 18:23]. Abraham is perfectly willing to be appropriately skeptical of God’s plans, to question what God is doing.

Abraham’s sight is limited, he sees only from the “opening of the tent” [Gen 18:1], not the entire “face of Sodom” [Gen 18:16] that the angels see. Yet, despite Abraham’s limitations he is unafraid to challenge God. Even in his limited view at a place called “Elonei Mamre” [Gen. 13:18, 14:13, 18:1], which could be translated as the “terebinths of seeing,” he is able to argue with God about His plans for Sodom.

Abraham seems more fearful of authority when dealing with Avimelech, king of Gerar. In Genesis 12 and 20, Abraham asks Sarah to conceal that she is his wife and pretend to be his sister. Avimelech “takes” Sarah until God appears in a dream to let him know there is a problem with taking a married woman. As recompense Avimelech gives to Sarah herself a thousand pieces of silver and tells her that Abraham will be a “kesut einayim,” [Gen 20:16] literally a “covering of the eyes” for her, the same verb “k-s-h” as God used in not hiding his plans from Abraham earlier.

The Midrash suggests that Avimelech was angry that Sarah “hid from me,” presenting herself as Abraham’s sister. Avimelech, says the Midrash, “cursed Sarah and said to her ‘you will have a son who will have covered eyes,’ therefore ‘when Isaac was old his eyes were too dim to see’” [Gen 27:1].

After this curse of  “concealed eyes” however, Sarah realizes the need to view household matters lucidly. She “sees” [Gen. 21:9] the mocking of Isaac by Ishmael, Abraham and Hagar’s son, and wishes to cast out the handmaid and her son. Abraham is opposed to Sarah’s plan, but God is on her side, telling Abraham “listen to her voice” [Gen 21: 12], and so Abraham sends Ishmael and Hagar into the desert. Sarah may have been told that Abraham would be a “covering of the eyes” for her, but that did not stop her from seeing appropriately and questioning the behavior of those in her household orbit.

The final test Abraham is asked to undergo by God is to “offer up” his son on a mountain in the land of Moriah [Gen. 22:2]. Moriah can be connected either to the verbs for “seeing” (reish-aleph-heh) or for “fear” (yod-reish-aleph) or for “teaching” (yod-reish-heh). Nahum Sarna notes the similar sound of Moriah and Moreh, connecting the first appearance of God to Abraham at the “terebinths of Moreh” [Gen. 12:6] and God’s last appearance and conversation with Abraham at Moriah. The teaching/vision/fear begun for Abraham in Genesis 12 is brought to its conclusion when Abraham is told by God, “now I know that you fear God” [Gen 22:12]. The culmination of this section is the naming of the place “Adoni-Yireh,” and the verse continues, “as it is said on this day, on the mount of the Lord there is vision” [Gen 22:14].

Yet, there are many who wonder why Abraham was afraid to question God’s plans here, to ask how killing a precious human life, especially the life of his son and successor, could possibly contribute to the Divine plan in some way? Since this is the last time Abraham, before his death, speaks with God, there are those who see Abraham’s performance on this test as a failure.

“Is anything too wondrous for God?” [Gen. 18:14]. The mystery of God and the wonder involved is the important message of the parsha. Even if God appears and is seen, enigma remains. Humans don’t know as God knows, even whether they have succeeded or failed. Even so, humans need to ask questions when necessary, not take instruction — even from the highest authority — as being beyond examination. Humans can’t see all as God clearly does, but we must still ask questions, particularly of those in authority.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2015). 

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