By Robert Stone
There’s a lot of looking and seeing in parashat Vayera. The parashah opens with God appearing to Abraham – “Now God was seen by him [Vayera YHVH elav]” – as he was sitting by the entrance to his tent (Gen. 18:1). In the next sentences, Abraham “lifted up his eyes and saw three men. … When he saw them, he ran to meet them”. And he asked them to accept his hospitality “if I have found favour in your eyes” (Gen. 18:2-3). Later the three men arose and “looked down upon the face of Sodom” (Gen. 18:16), and God said “Let me go down and see whether [Sodom and Gomorrah] have acted according to the outcry that has reached me” (Gen. 18:21).
The tragedy that befell the wife of Lot, Abraham’s brother, as the family fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, was that she looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt (Gen. 19:26). Early the next morning, Abraham went to the place and “looked down upon the face” of Sodom and Gomorrah and saw the smoke of the destruction (Gen. 19:28).
We are introduced to this leitmotif of seeing in the previous parashah, Lech Lecha, when we meet Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian maid. After Hagar became pregnant by Abram, Sarai treated her harshly and she fled. A messenger of God told her to go back: she will bear a son, Ishmael, because God has paid heed to her suffering. Hagar thereupon said to God, “You are El Ro’i, the God of Seeing” (Gen. 16:13).
What most Jews regard as our most important prayer, the Shema, begins Shema Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel”. It then goes on to stress, repeatedly, the importance of “these words that I command you today” (Deut. 6:4- 9). If there is one dominant mode in Torah, it is speaking – vayomer, vay’daber – and hearing.
“Words, words, words,” as Hamlet put it.
So where does seeing come in? There is a midrash that God took Abraham out of his tent, showed him the world and said, “Taste and see that the Eternal is good” (Psalm 34:9). Taste and see. Words are not enough. From the Mishnah to Maimonides we are told that we must not bury ourselves in texts: we also need to experience real life, with our eyes open, to see for ourselves what kind of world we live in and what we can do to repair that world – kkun olam. The texts are there to help us to see better and to act better, and that in turn helps us to understand the texts.
I have recently retired as a Trustee of Tzedek, the Jewish development charity. This summer, Tzedek, in cooperation with FZY and Tribe, organised a programme in Northern Ghana for two groups of UK Jewish 17-year- olds. They worked with Ghanaian youth leaders running programmes for children in extreme poverty. What shone out from social media posts by these remarkable teenagers, was that seeing conditions in Ghana for themselves and interacting with youth leaders and children there had enabled them, as one put it, “to partially burst [their] bubble of privilege and self-importance”. It was clear that they had risen to the challenge by learning from what they were seeing, and by allowing themselves to be transformed by that experience.
Robert Stone is a member of Kol Nefesh Masor Synagogue and Finchley Reform Synagogue.