Abraham’s Struggle to See

Lekh Lekha By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 23, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

Visual perception figures prominently in the week’s parasha, Parashat Lekh L’kha . Indeed, the verb ‘to see’, re’eh, repeats itself time and again – declaring its presence as the leitwort (‘leading word’ — a concept central to Martin Buber’s writings on the Bible) of the Abraham narrative. God commands Abraham to go forth “from your father’s house to the land that I will let you see” (Gen. 12:1); Abraham is concerned for his life “when the Egyptians see” Sarah (Gen. 12:12); and after the division of land between Lot and Abraham, God says to Abraham “Pray, lift up your eyes and see from the place where you are, to the north, to the Negev, to the east, and to the Sea” (Gen. 13:14). And although the Torah is silent on the particulars of God’s election of Abraham, many commentators credit Abraham’s keen sense of observation for pointing him in the ‘right’ direction. As will become evident through traditional and modern commentaries alike, this visual perception is at once Abraham’s greatest strength and most profound weakness.

In his rich commentary entitled The Bible As It Was (Belknap Press, 1997), James Kugel, Professor of Classical, Modern Jewish and Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, discusses the role of vision and observation in the Chaldean culture in which Abraham was raised. Kugel writes,

“In the ancient world, Chaldea was famous for one thing in particular; it was the home of astronomy and astrology. So great was the association between Chaldea and the study of stars that the very word ‘Chaldean’ came to mean ‘astronomer’ in both Aramaic and Greek. Many interpreters therefore naturally assumed that Abraham the Chaldean must himself have been something of an astronomer (138-139).”

Based on their observation of the physical world, however, Chaldean civilization “supposed that the world itself was god, sacrilegiously making out that which is created to be like the One who had created it” (Philo, On Abraham 69-71 as in Kugel, 140). Although he dabbled in celestial observation, Abraham went a step further. Far from making the natural world the object of worship, Abraham transcended the physical. Rabbinic midrash attests to Abraham’s unique perception:

“Upon seeing the moon and stars Abraham said, ‘This one must have created heaven and earth and me – these stars must be the moon’s princes and courtiers.’ So all night long he stood in prayer to the moon. In the morning, the moon sank in the west and the sun rose in the east. Then Abraham said, ‘There is no might in either of these. There must be a higher Lord over them – to God will I pray, and before God will I prostrate myself’ (Bet HaMidrash, ed. A. Jellinek, 2:118-196). Abraham is blessed with observation that penetrates far beyond the physical. His visual initiative and strength leads him to the recognition of God as Creator.”

Still, Abraham’s gift of perception is not to be taken for granted. Even after encountering God, Abraham finds himself lured by the celestial bodies. Later in our parasha, Genesis 15, Abraham feels hopeless because he and his wife are childless. In response, God commands Abraham to “look toward the heavens and count the stars” – promising Abraham innumerable descendants. The great medieval commentator, Rashi, quotes a compelling midrash which describes Abraham as lapsing into his Chaldean roots: Out of his desperation for Sarah to conceive, Abraham had consulted the stars and constellations to see what his future would hold. God rebukes him, declaring, “Abandon your astrological speculations that you have seen by the planets that you will not raise a son… Abraham will indeed have a son… and Sarah will bear a child” (Rashi, Genesis 15:5).

Thus, according to our first midrash, the Abraham of Genesis 12 had been a pioneer and a revolutionary perceiving God as a power greater than the sun, moon and stars. Here, in Genesis 15, Abraham is lured back into the physical and superficial. But at the very moment Abraham is about to mistake ‘that which is created to be like the One who had created it,’ God guides Abraham to transcend – to embrace a greater vision and to believe in the Divine promise. For brilliance surpasses what the eye would have you believe.

All too often, we are blinded by exceptional brilliance – for that is the paradox of brilliance. Whether it be a spectacular diamond, masterpiece work of art, or the talents of an exceptionally bright individual, we are overwhelmed by the physicality of experience. A diamond’s radiance blinds us to the God-given dexterity of the gem cutter; the overall beauty of a Monet obscures the uniqueness of each brush stroke endowed by God; the exacting precision of a surgeon masks God’s presence behind each procedure. Like the Chaldeans in their day, we come to focus on the physical and often overlook the Creator behind it. We fail to perceive the eternal in becoming romanced by the temporal. That is precisely what the Chaldeans did in observing the sun, moon, and stars. One may be so taken by their physical beauty and mystery as to think they are gods. When we, like the Chaldeans, fail to see God’s hand behind the brilliance in our world, we become idolaters no less than the Chaldeans.

At the same time, Judaism recognizes this potential for being romanced by physical brilliance and incorporates it. In the liturgy, the second blessing of the Shema acknowledges God as yotzer ha-meorot, ‘the Creator of the Great Lights’ (i.e., the sun and moon); in Ma’ariv, the evening service, we refer to God as ‘the orderer of the stars in their heavenly constellations.’ We recognize and marvel at the glory of our natural world, but more importantly, we underscore the fact that God created them. That is the brilliance and gift of Abraham – standing alone in the wilderness of his native land, he perceived the world in a different way. His was the true experience of revelation and transcendence. And that is the challenge for us – perceiving the ineffable in the all too often blinding light of day.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Matthew Berkowitz