This week’s Torah portion Vayera reminds me of Sherlock Holmes’ famous line: “As ever, Watson – you see but you do not observe!”
Most of us are like Watson. At first sight, we see the surface of things, a person or object’s size, shape, color, line, texture, and form.
Jewish mysticism teaches, however, that nothing is as it appears – every physical thing is a reflection of something deeper, more complex, wondrous, and enriched than we imagine.
Jacob Neusner, the scholar of early rabbinic Judaism, understood this when he described the Mishnah, the 2nd century strictly rational and ordered law code, as an ideal spiritual architecture underpinning the physical world. Every letter, word, phrase, and law, he said, is a reflection of the seen and the unseen, the explicit and implicit.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, is about that kind of seeing. It embraces especially what God sees and what God wants us to see and then emulate; the physical and metaphysical, the material and intuitive, the moral and ethical underpinnings in the world.
The three-letter Hebrew root of the parashah’s title Vayera (“And God appeared…”) is resh-aleph-heh. This Hebrew root appears eleven times in a variety of forms (Genesis 18:1-22:24). In nine of the eleven, the root is used in connection with God and angels.
Abraham greets three God-like humans who ‘appear’ near his tent.
God goes to Sodom and ‘sees’ whether the people have turned from their evil.
Lot ‘saw’ two of God’s messengers.
Sarah ‘saw’ Hagar’s son Ishmael and feared he would receive the inheritance in place of her son Isaac.
Hagar ‘saw’ a well of water that would save her son Ishmael from dehydration and death.
Abraham and Isaac ‘saw’ the cloud hovering over a mountain called Moriah, the place where there would be both divine and human ‘vision.’
In nine of the eleven occurrences, there’s divine revelation. These chapters in Genesis point to our patriarch Abraham as the grand ‘seer’ of his generation.
In every one of these spiritual encounters, we sense a spiritual awakening. When the heart opens in this way and the soul ‘sees,’ we’re drawn more deeply into what being human means and what God requires of us, “To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Your God.” (Micah 6:8)
What does Abraham see and do? The answer is the central moral message in this Torah portion and sets the stage for Jewish moral activism from that point forward.
Abraham circumcised himself and while recovering in pain he saw the three strangers approach. He got up and ran to welcome them despite his personal discomfort in an act of selfless hospitality.
Tradition understands these three men as angels sent for a three specific purposes. The first was to comfort Abraham as he recovered from circumcision. The second was to tell Abraham that God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And the third informed Abraham that in her old age his wife Sarah would give birth to a child that would carry forward the family line.
Abraham is regarded as the first Jew not only because he sensed God’s unity and responded to God’s call, but because he personified the morality of the three angels’ mission.
He welcomed strangers into his tent with chesed (loving-kindness).
Upon learning that the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed, he challenged God to behave according to God’s own divine standards of justice and save the innocent.
The story enumerates values that run through Jewish tradition; to welcome strangers, to care for the sick, to raise up the next generation, and to fight for justice.
Though Vayera is particular to Jews, its message is universal.