Parashat Vaera 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parashat Vaera 5778

Shabbat Shalom

Tommy can you see me? Tommy can you hear me? Tommy, can you touch me?

Earlier this year I quoted the 1970’s rock opera “Tommy.”

It’s a story of a deaf, dumb and blind abused child.

And it’s a story of how he needs to be understood.

How do we understand something? By what we see? What we have heard? What we have touched? What we have experienced…All of these and something else, but we also know that each one of us brings our own experiences and even biases to each and every situation. And so we can see or hear the same thing and have different reports.

I think there is a teaching in this week’s Torah that is a call to us to be careful about our aseseessemnts. Sometimes what we think we hear is not what’s being said. Sometimes, rather often, our perceptions are created by what we have known from the past…and we are also misslead by what we don’t know.

Let me share a story. A personal story. An embarassaing story. But it is instructive.

Years ago I was invited to a synagogue. This was in the eighties and the synagogue had been through a renovation a few years back. The synagogue had a solarium or a big reception area that was decorated in the popular colors of the late seventies and eighties…bright green, chartreause carpet, fucia, outlandish pink couches… remember those colors…

Well, after being there for a meeting I was at a seminar where the presenter, after her lecture, asked me if I had seen the solarium at this rather well known synagogue.

Her language was the following:

Did I see the “Gross solarium”

And I said in response, “a little ostentatious, maybe gross!”

And she said to me…”I am Dr. Gross. We donated the solarium in memory of my father Joseph Gross”…And I wanted to disappear…

I heard what she said. My experience was limited by my perception…it caused great embarassment. But I hold on to the notion that it was a bit ostentatious!

I was in that place.

I perceived what I perceived.

But my knowledge was incomplete.

We all do this in one way or another. We make mistakes because none of us can possibly see it all, know it all.

We know things, only from a specific vantage point. The problem comes when we’re so certain that we are correct.

This week I read an interesting article about knowing what we know when we know it…It’s a type of confession, and it made me quite sad. This is about how knowledge changes over time.

It was an article in Tablet. It was written by Susan Shapiro, a woman clearly in a transitional stage in life. She wrote:

After months of excited emails and Facebook messages, I was finally going to see Joanie—my favorite friend from high school—in Manhattan last November. Visiting from Israel with her family, she planned to sneak away late Thursday night to meet me downtown. I made it clear that nobody else was allowed to come. This was the first time I’d be seeing her in five years.

Worried that I’d gained weight and wrinkles, I tried to look good for her—dressing in chic black, with silver jewelry and makeup, my hair dyed back to its original chestnut color. When we hugged at my door, I took in her loose top, long skirt, and hiking boots, a headband holding her gray hair. She’d aged, too. Recognizing her luminous smile, I relaxed.

Although we were still Michigan girls at heart, our worlds had long ago diverged. After a 30-year struggle, I was a published author finally able to afford the literary scene in Greenwich Village I’d coveted for so long. I exalted Oprah and Gloria Steinem, celebrating women’s rights to have an important life, child-free. Joanie also had a book out—teaching mothers to breastfeed—and went back to school to become a nurse/midwife. But most of her time was dedicated to mothering her own six kids. Now, at 55, she was a grandmother of five.

In my New York apartment, as my old comrade showed me photos of her grown children, I was shocked by how jealous I felt. Suddenly, I was afraid I’d wasted decades.

Shapiro goes on to write about how certain she was of the life she wanted when she was in her twenties. And now at 55, she realized that certainty is causing her great pain.

Who can know at 20 what they want when they are 60?

Probably no one on their own. Maybe that’s why we need elders, sages and teachers.

A generation that rejected the advice of parents and now suffers from their lack of knowledge. Our parents are our greatest teachers and we learn that often, after they are no longer.

And I believe that’s why we need the knowledge that a religious tradition and culture can teach us.

There are always exceptions and we always need room for autonomous decision making.

No doubt about that. But the insight of those who are older, do bring a different vision; a different way of knowing.

Let me bring this to our Torah. There’s a profoundly important message that comes from the very first word. And the word does not only stand here, at the beginning of this parshah. It exists throughout a number of places.

Vayera… And He Saw… or perhaps more precisely, he lifted his eyes…Sight and vision play an important role in the two opening narratives of Parashat Vayera. At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, the newly circumcised Abraham, resting in the entrance of his tent “looks up” and sees God…God appears to him…but then a little later it says: He saw three men, three men were before him” (Gen. 18:1–2). These mysterious messengers are pampered as guests, and then deliver the news that Sarah will conceive. The gesture of Abraham setting his gaze “upward,” proves to be both a physical and spiritual act. The spiritual mirrors the physical as he tends to the needs of total strangers.

What does he see? Its purposively ambiguous… God is there and He sees three men… And we realize that we see on different levels. It depends on what we need to see. And how we’re trained to see. We have the capacity to look at someone and see a face, we see a figure…or we see something special. We can see love… or not.

We can see a divine image. And if we do, then we respond in a totally different way.

Vayera…it means to see, to look, TO LOOK UP.
Abraham has a vision with a hope for the future.

It’s pointed out that when the men tell Abraham about the evil people of Sodom and Gomorrah the language used to point it out or to see is “vayishkafu” …

And that means to look down…

The Torah continually teaches us about vision. Do we look up – Do we look down?

The connections with vision doesn’t end here. He’s sitting at Elon Mamre – place of vision. In a bit Abraham is called to sacrifice his child, his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah…

His is a deeply troubling text. And we know that tomes have been written about it. But in this context. Let me talk about two things.

The first is, Abraham is going through with this test.
He has his son bound on an altar.
And then God says… I see you fear God…
Yereh Ehlohim… the same root as see… yerei
And then he lifts his eyes… he sees the ram in the bush.
He sees more, he sees deeper, he understands at that moment that God doesn’t want the sacrifice of a child.
OH NO. God wants life.

And so, we see that honest and deep and true vision leads to a sense of the presence of the holy one.

What’s the name of the place, the mountain where it happens?
My Moriah… the place where God can be seen…
To this day there is conflict about this mount… and I want to say… nobody there is seeing God… because if they did, they wouldn’t be fighting about it.

We need to see clearly. We need to envision this world from other places than our own limited vantage points.

And that takes modesty and humility…takes a willingness to see and hear what others see and hear…

The world is plagued; I think by blindness.
No the blindness is caused by the inability to see others and hear others…

Let’s go to one other story in the parashaht…
Before the narrative about Abraham and Isaac… Hagar, the handmaiden, the concubine was banished into the wilderness. It’s a tragic and deeply painful story. She is there with her son Ishmael and there is not enough water for them to survive. It could not be worse… a mother watching the deprivation of a child. A son dying of thirst. Hagar puts her boy under a bush but she cannot bear the pain. She cries and, we read, God hears the cry of the boy.
He tells the mother lift up the boy, I will make of him a great nation.
And she does so and she sees a well of water.

Hearing… God hears the pain of the mother.
And perhaps, because she is now “HEARD” she SEES a well of water.
Wells don’t appear out of nowhere. The well was there. But now she sees it.
So what is in front of us all the time… we sometimes don’t see.
Perhaps the comfort and promise that comes from being heard, allows her, now to be able to see.

One who is abused, neglected, abandoned… cannot see straight.
One who is loved and cared for has a different kind of vision.
… as she watched her son dying of thirst… “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water and let the boy drink.” (Genesis 21:19)

There is a Zen teaching… Two monks were arguing about a flag blowing in the wind. One monk said, it is the flag that is waving.  The second monk said, no it is the wind that is waving.  Back and forth they went.  Finally, they went to ask the great Zen teacher Hui Neng. He answered, my fellow monks, you are both wrong.  It is not the flag that moves and it is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.

”A man is shown only what is suggested by his own thoughts” (Berakhot 55b). Too often we do not see what is really there, but what our mind suggests is there.

The angel tells Hagar to open her eyes and see the well. Each of us needs to consider how our mindset affects how we see the world.  Are we pessimistic, believing that everything is going to go wrong?  If so, we will see the world that way. Are we optimistic, seeing a world where positive things happen?  If so, we will see the world that way. Do we see a world where, if we are thirsty, God will provide a well for us to drink?  If so, such a well will appear.

The parashat, the article from Tablet, and life itself teaches us that we have to do occasional checks on our vision. We should never think we see or hear it all or know it all.

And most importantly we need to always look further and deeper… In our humility before the universe and the Holy one, we can gain more insight.

It is true that flag is not waving, the winds are not waving, but it is our minds that are waving.

Shabbat Shalom