(Dvar Torah on Vayeira)
Shabbat Shalom! Sometimes when I look back on my week, a clear theme emerges. Maybe it’s the same with you.
For me, this week’s theme has been navigating spaces where disagreement is sharp and inevitable. It’s not only the election, although that has been heavy on my mind. It’s also many other situations I find myself in. For example, in one of my internships, I get to work with a small group whose members’ political views vary widely within the group and vary from my own views. And then there’s social media, and other modes of non-face-to-face communication. Sometimes it seems like the deck is stacked with opportunities to separate from one another, to say, “I can’t possibly be in relationship or in community with this person. We are too different.” And yet, this very response is self-perpetuating, leading to fewer and fewer of the connective threads that bind us together.
The less we interact with each other, the less we see—really see—each other. And the less we see each other, the less we feel safe to interact. It’s a vicious cycle that threatens the stability of our society. The media environment contributes in terrible, cynical, and dishonorable ways. There is so much noise, so much static from overheated news sources that profit by making caricatures of political opponents, making them look more like monsters than actual humans created בצלם ,אלהים in the image of God. Today being Veteran’s Day reminds us of the awful human cost when we stop seeing one another’s humanity, and instead stoke the flames of conflict.
The Rabbis of the Talmud had a discussion on Brachot 9b about how much light there needs to be in order to say the morning Sh’ma, that ultimate prayer of unity. Some of the Sages say there needs to be enough light so we can tell the difference between blue and white; others say, between blue and green. Then they consider maybe the standard is being able to distinguish a dog from a wolf. Others say it’s when there’s enough light that you can recognize a neighbor from a short distance. Our Sages were telling us how important it is for us to really notice the people around us. You can’t love your neighbor if you can’t see your neighbor.
Our Torah portion this week offers a lesson in this kind of openness. The name of the parsha, and also its first word, Vayeira, means, “And Adonai appeared.” At the beginning of the parsha, God appears to Abraham as he rests at the opening of his tent, exhausted and in pain. Yet, when God draws his attention to the form of three approaching strangers, Abraham lifts his eyes וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו and takes in the sight of the three figures, who are typically interpreted to be three messengers from God.
In this source text for traditional Jewish hospitality, Abraham welcomes the three as honored guests, washing their feet and offering the best food that he and Sarah have on hand. Rather than being suspicious of the new arrivals, he instead made every effort to make them at home. When he lifted his eyes, he truly saw them and welcomed them in.
What’s remarkable about this scene is that Abraham’s hospitality and welcome were unconditional. While he might have had reason to be suspicious or wary of people he didn’t know, he leaned instead into openness and curiosity, becoming a model for our people of how hospitality and human connection can look.
Later in the parsha, Abraham is in an altogether different situation as he navigates God’s loyalty test for him: the binding of his son Isaac. In this moment, Abraham finds himself in a horrific, impossible situation, having seemingly been instructed by God to sacrifice his own child. Leaving aside the morality of this test—as far as I’m concerned, God has a lot to answer for in this parsha—what I want us to notice tonight is what gets Abraham out of this unthinkable situation. He is literally poised with a knife over his son’s throat when he hears a voice, another messenger from God, calling out his name. And again, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a ram in the thicket, which he then substitutes for Isaac in the sacrifice. Lifting his eyes and seeing his surroundings more clearly prevents Abraham from making the mistake of a lifetime.
The first verse of Psalm 121 contains these words: אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי I lift my eyes up to the hills, where my help comes from. There is something about looking and seeing that settles us and calls us into alignment. Perhaps this is why the Sages of the Talmud so insistently emphasize seeing as the condition under which we can call on one another to acknowledge God’s holy presence. In a clear enough light we can see the image of God in our neighbors, and in ourselves.
Which brings us back to the current climate of disagreement and distrust. It could be different! I read an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal about a convent located near the campus of Neumann University that is dedicating part of its space as a dormitory for undergraduate students. What began as an unlikely but practical solution to a shortage of on-campus housing has turned into a very touching story of people meeting across differences of culture, background, belief and lifestyle. The nuns and the students are now sharing nature walks, knitting lessons, and occasional meals together. The nuns bake cookies for the students and the students order ice cream sandwiches for the nuns. Most of all, they spend time together learning to understand one another’s very different lives. They are breaking stereotypes and preconceptions by lifting their eyes and truly seeing each other.
What would it be like if more of us lifted our eyes away from our stereotypes, from our habitual ways of seeing the world, from our doomscrolling and sought out God’s image in one another, even—or maybe especially—with people we disagree with, the so-called other side? I want to be clear that I don’t mean this as a solution for out-and-out hate, but rather for not allowing simmering distrust and misunderstanding to fester into hate in the first place. We can only enter into productive relationship that can withstand conflict when we truly see one another clearly. And we might learn something about the world and about ourselves by taking that risk, in curiosity and hope.