RH Day 1 Opening Our Eyes

Opening Our Eyes

I’ve been thinking about how the sense of sight, the sense of seeing, plays such a prominent role in our Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah.  Let’s take a look at two of the stories we read on this Rosh Hashanah holiday and ask ourselves what the text is trying to teach us about seeing.
The Torah readings for Rosh Hashannah contain two stories of people who should have seen things that they missed seeing, with possible disastrous consequences. The first story is that of Hagar, who bore Abraham a child with Sarah’s consent, while Sarah remained childless.  After Sarah gives birth to Isaac, however, she can no longer tolerate the presence of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Sarah demands that Abraham expel them from the family.  Abraham reluctantly listens to his wife, and sends his son Ishmael and his concubine, Hagar, out into the wilderness with provisions. But Hagar goes astray and soon runs out of food and water.  Hagar places Ishmael under a desert bush, and sits herself at a distance, she says, “So I will not need to see the death of my son.” Overcome by grief and hopelessness, sitting afar, out of sight from her son, Hagar bursts into tears.  
 Now with Hagar sobbing and her son wailing, G-d needs to intervene. The text tells us, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”  What does it mean that G-d opened her eyes and she saw a well?  Did G-d plant a well at that very moment?  Unlikely. More likely, the well had always been there.  In her distress and agitation, in her fear and in her panic, Hagar simply failed to see it.  She gave up, and settled in to die.

G-d opened her eyes, and she saw what she had failed to see the moment before.    The other person in our Torah reading who fails to see what is in front of him is Abraham. G-d decides to give Abraham a test. Scriptures is silent on exactly why Abraham needs to be tested, or what will constitute passing the test.  “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, and bring him up for a burnt offering at the place that I will show you.”  Abraham dutifully sets off with Isaac for the sacrifice. Isaac senses something amiss. This isn’t like other times that the two of them have offered burnt offerings. “Here is the firestone and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  Abraham reassures his son, “G-d will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”   When they arrive at the place that G-d had shown Abraham, Abraham methodically goes about building the altar, arranging the wood, and binding his son Isaac upon it.  No words or emotions pass between them.  Abraham reaches for the knife to slay his son.  At that moment, an angel calls from the heavens. “Do not raise your hand against the boy, and do not do anything to him.”  But it is already too late.             It is too late because Isaac, bound on an altar by his father, the knife poised to slay him, must have been shattered for life, seeing his father acting toward him in this way.  Have you ever had someone you trust turn on you?  Could you imagine what this must have been like for Isaac, the trusting son, the precious son, the son who depended all his life on the sheltering wings of his father’s protection, to see his loving father about to kill him?  Abraham went too far.  Inspired by his faith in God, eager to demonstrate his faith, he was blinded by that faith.    Isaac pays the price because his father did not understand what G-d wanted of him.  Eager to prove himself to G-d, Abraham did not see what G-d was actually asking of him.  There is a midrash that imagines G-d as being incredulous over what Abraham is about to do.  The midrash plays on the ambiguity of the Hebrew words, “ve-ha-alehu sham le-olah” – “bring him up for a sacrifice”.   The sages explain that this is like a king who wants to elevate the status of the son of his favorite servant.  He tells the servant to bring the son for dinner.  When the king arrives for dinner, he expects to see the servant and the servant’s son at the table. Instead, he sees the servant at the table and the servant’s son bound and gagged in the kitchen.  “I said bring him FOR dinner, not AS dinner,” said the exasperated king. “I wanted to honor him, not eat him!”                          Then Abraham lifted his eyes, and he saw!  Here was a ram, behind, caught in the thicket by his horns.”

Was the ram always there?  In Abraham’s grim determination to complete the mission as he understood it, did he fail to see the ram that G-d in fact had provided?  Like Hagar, did Abraham fail to see what was in plain sight the whole time?  Did Abraham pass the test, or, by not seeing what was in plain sight before his eyes, did he fail it?  Did he really think that G-d could be so cruel as to have him slaughter the very son he had promised would carry on the Jewish tradition?  Would not G-d have been disappointed in Abraham – do you really think I would ask you to do that?  After all we have been through, don’t you understand me, trust me, that I would not command you to do something so irrational, so crazy, so unjust, so contrary to my Law? Abraham should have been prepared to look for the ram that G-d would provide well before he tied Isaac up in preparation for the slaughter. He told Isaac that G-d would see to the lamb for the burnt offering!!

  Like Abraham, like Hagar, we too often fail to see what is right before our eyes.  We give up, like Hagar, oblivious to the wells of salvation within our reach. We fail to lift our eyes and see the choices that we have. We get stuck, like Abraham, with tunnel vision. We stubbornly pursue paths to disaster and we don’t raise our eyes and see the options before us until it is too late.              Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw.  What did he see? I imagine that he saw much more than a ram in a thicket.  I imagine that he saw what he was doing, how he had hurt his son, the damage he was causing in his faulty understanding of God’s will. I imagine he wondered to himself, “Why didn’t I see that ram earlier, I could have prevented so much pain, for there was the sacrifice that I had told Isaac about, but I just couldn’t see it. O, What have I put my son through because I did not see?”    How many of us hurt others by unyieldingly holding on to a principle, how many of us obstinately refuse to recognize our options, how many of us fail to take paths that will avoid or at least mitigate the suffering we cause ourselves and others.   Different things blind us.  How many of us refuse to forgive, because forgiveness is seen as a form of capitulation, of surrender, of giving in. Sometimes the only thing that prevents us from forgiving others is our sense of pride. We are blinded by pride, we are blinded by our arrogance, we are blinded by our preconceived notions, by our prejudices, by our past experiences, by our needs, by our greed. 

 Each morning in our opening blessings we recite: “Blessed are thou, o Lord our God, who opens the eyes of the blind.”  This prayer was originally meant to be recite upon awakening from our sleep, as we open our eyes again to the morning light, we thank God for the gift of sight.  But on a deeper level, I like to think that this blessing goes beyond mere physical sight, that it includes a plea for a deeper vision, a plea to remove the blind-spots in our own lives, to remove the distorting lenses before our eyes.
What things don’t we see?  About ourselves, about our times?

We don’t see the people who love us. We don’t see the good in other people. We don’t see the talents that others possess. We don’t see our own selfishness. We don’t see our jealousies. We don’t see the way we hurt others. We don’t see the good in ourselves. We don’t see our own talents. We don’t see our own strengths. We don’t see how generous we could be. We don’t see our power. We don’t see our prejudices. We don’t see our greatness. We don’t see our pettiness. We don’t see our options in life. We don’t see the suffering of others.   This is the profound yet realistic goal of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur.  It is to do Teshuva, a return, a turning inward, a turning around.  The prayers in our Machzor are designed to imbue us with a perspective that might lead to action.  That perspective turns on a few grand themes.  God is the Creator of the Universe, He is majestic, his concerns transcend the petty concerns of each individual, we are nothing before Him; yet God cares for us, He is the compassionate merciful parent.   The High Holidays invite us to consider and reconsider our place in the cosmos, in our communities, in our families, to see these, as it were, from a different vantage point than we consider them during the rest of the year.  The High Holidays, whatever else they might be, are surely about helping us to sharpen our vision, to open our eyes, to consider anew, to look again, to catch a glimpse of what has grown dim or to discover an insight beyond our ken.