This week’s Torah portion Vayera reminds me of Sherlock Holmes’ famous statement to his loyal friend Dr. Watson: “Watson – you see but you do not observe!”
Most of us are like Watson. At first sight, we see only the surface of things, an object’s size, shape, color, line, texture, and form.
Jewish mysticism teaches, however, that nothing is as it appears to the eye – every physical thing is but a reflection of something deeper, more complex, wondrous, and enriched than we imagine it to be.
The great Jewish scholar, Dr. Jacob Neusner, described the 2nd century law code, the Mishnah, as an ideal spiritual architecture underpinning the physical world. Every letter, word, phrase, and law, he said, embraces the seen and the unseen, the explicit and implicit – all existence.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, is about seeing in all its dimensions. It concerns especially what God sees and what God wants us to see; the physical and the metaphysical, the material and what can be grasped only through intuition.
The 3-letter Hebrew root of the title of Vayera (“And God appeared…”) is resh-aleph-heh. The root appears 11 times in the portion in a variety of forms (Genesis 18:1-22:24). In 9 of the 11, it is used in connection with God and angels (i.e. God’s messengers).
Abraham greets three God-like men who ‘appear’ near his tent. God goes to Sodom and ‘sees’ whether the people have turned away from their evil. Lot ‘saw’ two of God’s messengers. Sarah ‘saw’ Ishmael and feared he had receive the inheritance in place of her son Isaac. Hagar ‘saw’ a well of water that would save her son, Ishmael, from certain death. Abraham and Isaac both were able to ‘see’ the cloud hovering upon a mountain called Moriah, the place (Makom – another word for God) where there would be ‘vision.’
In those 9 of 11 occurrences, there is divine revelation. These chapters of Vayera point to our patriarch Abraham as a grand ‘seer’ graced with intuitive insight. In every one of these spiritual encounters, we sense newness and spiritual awakening, and that phenomenon inspires within the heart the virtues of appreciation and gratitude and within the soul the experience of awe and wonder.
When the heart opens this way and the soul ‘sees,’ we mere mortals are drawn more deeply into what it means to be human and to sense what God requires of us ethically and spiritually in the world.
Abraham, the prophet and patriarch, must have had a highly developed intuitive sensibility. If only we could hear God’s voice and know what Abraham experienced in those moments!
The 18th century British poet and painter, William Blake, in his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, imagined a conversation with the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel:
“…the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood…? To which Isaiah answered: ‘I saw no God nor heard any in a finite organic perception; but my senses discovered the infinite in everything.”
Blake’s way is also the way of the Jewish mystic who senses always the holy in the mundane and glimpses the Godly in the human situation. I suspect this was Abraham’s experience as he welcomed the three visitors to his tent. He saw them as human beings, but they were really angels. Thus, Abraham set the way of the Jew and became our example.