Parashat Va-yera

Genesis 18:1–22:24

October 23, 2010 / 15 Heshvan 5771

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Deborah Miller, associate director of the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, JTS.

Is seeing believing? Or, to put it another way, is seeing necessary for believing? I am not asking a theological question, but a psychological/social/emotional one.

Here is an example of what I mean: wherever you look—on the Internet, on television, in magazines—there are images of American celebrities lending their financial and moral support to a wide variety of charitable causes. Inevitably, those photographs include people who are on the receiving end—sick children in Africa, hurricane victims in Haiti, flood victims in Pakistan.

When I review these pictures, I wonder if the experience of seeing the actual victims was a prime motivator for the celebrity to get involved in the charitable cause, or if the visit to these trouble spots only reinforced that person's already-established commitment to helping. If the former, then it seems an example of the power of seeing a problem as a motivation to helping to solve it.

The power of sight pervades this week's parashah, Va-yera. The parashah's name itself, which means "He appeared," is the passive form of the word to see—ra-ah. It is not only this parashah that is flooded with verbs of seeing and sight—the whole Torah is. And, as we would expect, the meanings of seeing are as varied in Hebrew as they are in English. Consider what we mean by see in these phrases:

I see what you mean (to understand cognitively and/or emotionally).

I'll see to it (to take care of).

That's your idea? I don't see it (to envision and believe).

I saw it coming (to predict).

God saw that it was good (to judge).

In the case of Va-yera, and especially the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael in chapter 21, the seeing is teamed with verbs of hearing, and they convey both physical and emotional perception.

This is the context: at the beginning of the parashah, Isaac has been weaned. In the ancient world, this would have been extremely significant. That the child-of-old-age of Abraham and Sarah, that most longed-for of heirs, is weaned, means that he can live on his own, independent of his mother. He is now developmentally and physically viable.

But this is a threat to Abraham's firstborn, Ishmael. Ishmael, the child who was brought into the family ten years earlier, at Sarah's initiative—the child who was to be the reason for building her up when it did not seem that Sarah would ever provide a son for Abraham—suddenly this boy is no longer necessary, because Isaac will live. And how is Sarah reminded that Ishmael is still there and superfluous? He laughs intensely (mitzahek). Or maybe he is fooling around (as other uses of the word suggest, in all the varieties of that phrase). Or maybe he is acting as though he is Yitzhak (Isaac). Whatever the case, he has made the mistake of drawing attention to himself. And Sarah "saw him laughing." Here, the seeing sets up the problem. Immediately, Sarah tells Abraham to expel the slave woman and her son, since he would not inherit with her son, with Isaac. Abraham's wordless response also has to do with sight: "The thing [expelling Hagar and Ishmael] was very bad in Abraham's eyes." God comforts Abraham and induces him to listen to Sarah, by saying, "Do not let it be evil in your eyes."

Wordlessly, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away. They find themselves stranded in the wilderness without water. Hagar tosses her son under a bush, because she cannot stand to see his death. Blinded by tears, she does not see a water source, until a messenger of God tells her to lift her eyes, and look. And this seeing closes the story, with Ishmael's life saved and his destiny assured.

This is a core story in which seeing leads to the saving of life. The book of Exodus has more. One is a micro-story about seeing and then saving, in which the morally courageous midwives disobey Pharaoh in a beautiful play on words. Pharaoh tells them (Exod. 1:16): "'When you deliver the Israelite women on the birthing stones—should you see (וראיתן) that it is a boy, kill him, but if it is a girl, let her live.' But the midwives feared (ותיראן) God, and they let the boys live." The same, exact letters are used in a different order, changing sight to God-fearingness, which resulted in their saving the children. These women, who had nothing to gain and everything to lose, were true rescuers.

The next Exodus act of heroism follows the same pattern: Moses sees an Israelite being beaten, and intervenes to save the victim. His readiness to act, rather than turning away, may be the reason he was chosen to lead the Israelites.

These little stories are among those that set the stage for the major "saving" story of the exodus, in which the Israelites are saved from Egyptian bondage. Salvation moves from being God's responsibility to being Moses's, as we will see:

In Exodus 3:7-9, God first says that God has seen the suffering, heard the outcry, and knows the pains of the people—and that God intends to save them. This is followed directly by God's commissioning Moses to follow suit. But here, the perceptions of suffering appear in the reverse order: God says that the Israelites' outcry has come to God; then, that God has seen the stress of the people—and now God is sending Moses to take them out of Egypt. The action has moved from God to a human being.

This is the direction of the Bible. The next step is to impel all of us to follow these examples: we are all supposed to learn to see, to pay attention, to care, and to act. One example of a mitzvah from the book of Deuteronomy (22:1): "Do not see your brother's bull or lamb go astray, and ignore them; return them to your brother." It is our job purposefully to see, to acknowledge, even when it will cost us time, energy, and money to do what is right. It is exactly in those instances when we can pretend we didn't notice the problem, and therefore can avoid getting involved and taking action, that we are commanded to look and act. We don't individually have to save the entire Jewish people; but we have hundreds of opportunities each day to open our eyes and to take actions that demonstrate that we see the needs of others and act on them.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.