Our scripture portion is entitled Vayera (aô∂r´¥yÅw - And He appeared). Genesis 18.1-22.24
Two parts of today’s reading really impressed me this year, as they both portray our father Abraham as a man who saw things in a special way. I refer to chapter 18, particularly verses 1-2, 20-30, and the Akeida, chapter 22:1-24.
In both of these narratives, Abraham saw the reality of the situation that was not apparent to the naked eye. He understood what God’s purposes were, and that gave him the motivation and "chutzpah” (fortitude) to carry out righteous actions. Seeing from God’s perspective was the key to Abraham’s life. I would assert that this ability guided him in all of his journeys in life.
When we encounter the Hebrew root ra-a-h in scripture (resh-alef-he), we most often are given "see” as the proper translation. In the language of the time, however, this word was also an idiomatic way to say "understand.” In the ancient Jewish mind, if one "sees” something, one understands it. We often say today in English, "I see,” not referring to the physical characteristic of sight, but to say that we understand a point that is being made. When the Bible says that Abraham "saw” the situations that God put before him, it means he "understood” God’s purposes, and so he knew what to do in the given situations.
Afterward, God appeared to him by the oak trees of Mamre, while he was sitting in the entryway to his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and suddenly there were three men standing straight ahead of him. He saw them, got up from his tent’s entry, and ran to greet them, then fell prostrate before them. (Gen. 18.1-2, my translation, bold letters mine)
What an awesome event that Abraham "saw”! Verse one notes that God himself appeared to Abraham (Heb. "vayer’a", providing us with the name of our parasha). Vayer’a is from the root ra-a-h. Abraham didn’t just see God with his physical eyes, but he understood the significance of this event. I believe that this meaning is incorporated into the word "saw” (v.2b). Abraham "sees” the three messenger-men AND understands their importance. Although falling down to the ground in front of strangers may not have been an unknown phenomenon in the ancient Middle East, usually this was done to honor and show respect to the more prominent person(s). We can understand Abraham’s action in the latter way: he saw and understood who these men represented, and his actions then become very understandable. Abraham truly "saw” what was happening around him—the Holy One was again communicating with him.
Then God said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is very intense; their breaking of the Torah is quite serious. I’ll go down to see about these cries that have come to me, to find out if they have done what they are accused of doing. If not, I will find out.” So the men left there, and they went toward Sodom, while Avraham still stood in front of God. Avraham approached him, and said, "Will you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Let’s say there are fifty righteous people in the city; will you destroy it? Won’t you spare the place because of the fifty righteous people in its midst? May it be forbidden! You can’t do this, to kill the righteous along with the wicked. Are the righteous the same as the wicked? May it be forbidden! The judge of the world can’t do this kind of judging!” God then replied, "If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, then I’ll spare the entire place on their account.” Avraham then answered, saying, "Please be patient, because I have dared to continue speaking to my Lord, and I am but dust and ashes. If by chance there are five people less than fifty righteous people, will you destroy the entire city because of a lack of five people?” And he replied, "I won’t destroy it if I find forty-five (righteous people) there.” He dared again to speak to him, saying, "What if there are forty righteous people?” So he answered, "I won’t destroy it due to the merit of these forty.”So he said, "Please, my Lord, don’t get mad, but allow me to speak. What if there are thirty righteous people?” So he answered, "I won’t destroy it if I find thirty righteous people there.” (Genesis 18.20-30, my translation).
God then addresses Abraham very directly, speaking right to him. God is going "to see” what is happening in Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 21). But didn’t He know already? Of course he did, but he had a way of "seeing” (i.e. understanding, viewing and acting upon) the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah that he wanted to help Abraham "see” (i.e. understand). Again, the root ra-a-h is used to express God’s "seeing” in verse 21. The Holy One was to bring Abraham along in his "seeing” (understanding).
Abraham then addresses God as a defense attorney would address a judge. He makes it a point to approach the judge: "Avraham still stood in front of God. Avraham approached him…” (18.22-23).
He appeals to God to have the greatest possible mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah. I think to myself, "what chutzpah he had!” My goodness, to so boldly address God and to almost try to bargain with him, as it were, seems so out of character with anything that a righteous person would do!
However, if Abraham understood (i.e. "saw”) matters from God’s perspective, he interceded here as a partner with God, not in opposition to him. He "saw” God’s perspective. (And, of course, Abraham had a nephew there to be concerned about!) Abraham could stand before God boldly and argue/intercede with him, because he, too, "saw” things from the Holy One’s perspective, aligned himself with God’s purposes, and was a partner to Him.
At least three times in our parasha, Abraham "looks up, sees” and consequently acts on what he sees. His actions were those of a righteous man as he saw from God’s perspective. And that made all the difference.
How do we emulate our father Abraham, some 3,800 years later? May God grant us the wisdom to know how, and the determination to do as Abraham did. May He grant us eyes to "see" from His perspective and partner with Him and His purposes.
By Friedman Review
Rabbi David Friedman