Seeing (as) God
As our parasha opens, God appears, va’yeira, to Avraham while he is sitting by the opening of his tent. Immediately thereafter, Avraham sees, va’yar, three men standing near him. He sees them again, and he runs to greet them.
This pairing of God appearing and Avraham seeing brings us back to the beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha. There, God tells Avraham to go to the land that God will show him, asher arekha. Later, when Avraham is passing through the land of Canaan, God appears to him and tells him that this is the land that God will give to Avraham’s descendants. God’s appearing to Avraham enabled Avraham to see that his was no ordinary land, but the Promised Land.
Although God spoke to Adam and Eve, to Cain, and to Noah, God never appeared to them. The first person that God appears to in the Torah is Avraham, and God does so again and again. It is thus no coincidence that Avraham is also the first person commanded not just to follows God’s words, but to see what God was showing him. God appears to Avraham so that Avraham may learn how to see what is Godly in the world, how to see God in the world.
After God appears to Avraham in our parasha he begins to see more clearly. He notices things; he looks at the strangers not once, but twice. He sees that these are not just travelers, but people in need. He pays attention to details – according to the midrash he notes how they are standing and how they are addressing one another. He puts himself in their place, sensing what they need and how they must be feeling even before they have spoken. And he understands how to speak to them so they feel welcomed and embraced.
Avraham’s encounter with God allows him to see what is Godly in others, not just in the world. In fact, when he first speaks to the men he addresses them with the word adon-ai, “my lords,” the same word that is used to refer to God. The ambiguity should be understood as purposeful. After seeing God, he was able to see these nomads not merely as men but as human beings created in the divine image.
Seeing God in the world is what allows us to see properly. It is a corrective to how we as humans too often see – through the lens of self-interest and desire, a seeing which leads to a taking. This, as I have recently discussed here, is what constitutes primordial sin: Eve sees the fruit, and she takes it: va’teira… va’tikach (Breishit 3:6). The “sons of God” see the human women, and they take them: va’yiru… va’yikachu (6:2). And later, in last week’s parasha, it was the servants of Pharaoh who saw Sarai and took her: va’yiru… va’tukach (12:15).
God's appearing to Avraham is meant to reverse this way of seeing the world. In fact, it is now that we read how the act of taking can been transformed and become a tikkun of this primordial sin.
It begins after the flood. Ham sees his father’s nakedness and goes out to tell his brothers. He sees the nakedness, but they are the ones who do the taking. They take the cloak so that they should not see, vi’ervat avi’hem lo rau, “and the nakedness of their father they did not see” (9:23). If human seeing leads to taking, then the simplest solution is to make sure that one does not see. It’s a lot easier to diet if there is no ice cream in the house, and it’s a lot easier to avoid sin if one closes one’s eyes to the outside world.
But one cannot go through life with her eyes shut, no more than she can go through her life without eating. Dieting can actually be much harder than, say, quitting smoking. One can avoid owning cigarettes or even being around others who smoke, but one cannot avoid eating. The true tikkun is not to learn how to not see, but to learn how to see correctly.
It is thus that God begins to teach Avraham how to see. “Go thyself… to the land that I will show you, arekha” (12:1). And the taking that follows this seeing is a taking in the service of God: “And Avram took, va’yikach, Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all the wealth that they had amassed… and they set forth to the land of Canaan” (12:5). Far from taking to serve oneself and amass wealth, Avraham takes his wealth to serve God.
Similarly, after God appears to Avraham in the beginning of our parasha, Avraham’s seeing of the men is followed by a very particular type of taking: “… let a little water be taken that you may wash your feet” (18:4). It is not a taking for oneself, but a taking of one’s efforts and one’s own resources in order to give to others.
We would expect that the akeida, the taking of Yitzchak as a sacrifice, is the ultimate expression of this taking to serve God. Surprisingly, however, this is a taking that was not preceded by a vision. God speaks to Avraham and commands him to perform the akeida, but in those verses God never appears to Avraham. And unlike the first lekh lekha, Avraham here is commanded to go to the place that God will tell him, quite pointedly not the place that God will show him.
There was indeed a divine command to offer up Yitzchak, but it was never part of the divine plan that this should come to fruition. Offering Yitzchak was not part of the divine vision, and God would never show Avraham how to see in this way.
Although not following a divine vision, Avraham does see for himself: “And he saw the place from a distance…” (22:4). And this does lead to a taking, a taking that could well result in the sacrifice of Yitzchak: “And Avraham took the wood for the burnt offering… and he took in his hand the fire and the knife” (22:6). And yet, inasmuch as God has not appeared to him or shown him the way, we, and quite possibly Avraham, are left to wonder if Avraham is seeing things as God would have him see them. Is this a proper seeing? Avraham’s response to his son is telling: “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering” (22:8). What God sees, what God wants Avraham to see, is yet to be made clear.
It is at the critical moment that the Avraham realizes what it is that God wants him to see. The angel speaks to Avraham and stays his hand, telling him, “For now I know that you fear God” (22:12). The word fear, yi’rei, evokes the word to see, roeh, and this is made explicit two verses later, “And Avraham called the name of the place ‘God sees,’ yireh, as it is said to this day, on the mount of the Lord it shall be seen, yei’raeh.” Fearing God is intertwined with seeing God, and if Avraham now fears God, it is also because he has now seen God.
It is now, after this fearing/seeing, that Avraham can see correctly:
And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and he saw, va’yar, and behold, behind him, there was a ram caught up in the thicket by its horns, and Avraham went and he took, va’yikach, the ram, and he offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. (22:14)
He looks clearly; he looks twice, lifting up his eyes, looking behind him. The vision of God has pushed him to see better, to see broadly, not narrowly, to look to see a deeper truth. He now sees the “sheep” that God has seen is not his son but the ram, and the taking that God wanted was not the taking of his son but the taking of the ram.
There are many forms of seeing and taking in the world. When one sees through his or her own eyes, one sees for oneself and one takes for oneself. It is our goal to strive to see through God’s eyes, to learn to take what is ours in order to give to God. But we must always be on guard that this taking for God not be twisted into a violent fundamentalism, into taking the property of others or even the lives of others in the name of God. To see like God is to see that God wants the ram, not the son. It is to see the godliness in every human being. It is ultimately to give to others and to give to the world, to act in all ways so that God will be more seen in the world.