Thursday, November 4, 2010

Toldot

The cliche “seeing is believing” is an apt description for a prominent refrain in the Abraham narratives.  In Genesis 21, for example, we read of Ishmael who when dying from hunger and thirst is miraculously saved by the appearance of a well.  “Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.”  Then again perhaps the well was there all along.  In Genesis 22 we read, “When Abraham lifted up his eyes he saw a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.  So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.”  Did God make the ram appear out of thin air or was it there all along and Abraham failed to see it? 

Most people read the Bible and think that miracles are akin to magic.  God magically provides a well and a ram.  (Take an Exodus example as well: God makes a bush burn without being consumed.)  In my estimation however miracles are about the lifting up of the eyes.  The ram was always there.  Abraham only needed turn away from his son, bound on the sacrificial altar, and loosen his grip on the knife.  The well was there as well.  Hagar only needed to wipe the tears from her face to see what was already there. Sometimes zealousness and grief prevent us from seeing what stands before us.

This refrain is what makes this week’s Torah portion and its story all the more remarkable.  In this Parashat Toldot, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebekah, tricks his father Isaac and steals the blessing intended for his brother Esau.  The story begins: “When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27)   Jacob prepares a meal for his father and dresses like his brother Esau as his mother directs him and says to Isaac, “I am Esau, your first born: I have done as you told me.  Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.”  The Torah continues, “So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered, ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.’  Isaac did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him.”

Whereas the stories about Abraham are about opening eyes, those about Isaac are about closing the eyes.  Earlier Isaac asks his father Abraham, “’Here are the firestone and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?  And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the sheep for His offering, my son.’  And the two of them walked as one.” (Genesis 22)

The haunting question that frames our patriarch Isaac’s life is does he choose not to see?  Was he a willing participant to his own near sacrifice?  And in this week’s chapter we must ask: did he choose willful blindness? 

To have faith in our tradition is to stand in awe, literally to fear heaven.  In Hebrew the words for seeing and having such faith are very close and share the same root.  What therefore is the relationship between seeing and believing?  When is not seeing, as with our patriarch Isaac, a matter of faith and a necessity for life? 

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