The following is a quick write-up of some ideas on this week’s Parshah, “Vayera.” For the 2015 article on Vayera, “Perceiving Providence,” please click here. For the 2014 article on Vayera, “Shakespeare and Sodom,” please click here.
Had he pulled the stunt a day earlier, it might have passed as a clever April fool’s prank. But Horatio Nelson was in no joking mood. The date was April 2, 1801, and Vice Admiral Nelson was leading an attack against the Danes during the War of the Second Coalition. The officer believed that his troops held the upper hand in this battle; his commander, however, disagreed, and sent orders to discontinue the operation via a system of signal flags. This placed Nelson in a difficult predicament: on the one hand, his martial instincts left him confident that victory was imminent; on the other hand, disobeying the directives of a higher-up would violate the most basic principle of military conduct. So Nelson—who had lost vision in one eye during his early days in the Navy—devised a sneaky solution. He raised his telescope to his blind eye, peered through it for a few moments, and then happily announced: “I really do not see the signal!” With that, his forces continued their advance, and ultimately won the Battle of Copenhagen—just as Nelson had foreseen they would.
From this little-known chapter in British history has emerged the English phrase “Nelson’s knowledge”—referring to facts or information we could or should have known, but choose to avoid—along with the much more popular idiom, “to turn a blind eye.” Yet while we may owe these phrases to Nelson, the behavior which they describe could certainly be attributed to many who lived before him. Consider the following account from this week’s Parshah:
And Abraham traveled from there to the land of the south, and he dwelt between Kadesh and between Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said about Sarah his wife, “She is my sister,” and Abimelech the king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. And God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and He said to him, “Behold you are going to die because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a married woman.” But Abimelech had not come near to her, and he said, “O Lord, will You kill even a righteous nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she said, ‘He is my brother.’ With the innocence of my heart and with the purity of my hands have I done this.” And God said to him in a dream, “I also know that you did this with the innocence of your heart, so I have withheld you from sinning to Me; therefore, I did not let you touch her. And now, return the man’s wife, because he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and [you will] live; but if you do not return [her], know that you will surely die, you and all that is yours.”
And Abimelech arose early in the morning, and he summoned all his servants, and he spoke all these words in their ears; and the men were very frightened. And Abimelech summoned Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us, and what have I sinned against you, that you have brought upon me and upon my kingdom a great sin? Deeds that are not done, you have done to me.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” And Abraham said, “For I said, ‘Surely, there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. And also, indeed, she is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her: This is your kindness, which you shall do with me: whither we come, say about me, ‘He is my brother.'”
And Abimelech took flocks and cattle and menservants and maidservants, and he gave [them] to Abraham, and he restored to him his wife Sarah. And Abimelech said, “Here is my land before you; wherever it pleases you, you may dwell.” And to Sarah he said, “Behold I have given a thousand pieces of silver to your brother; behold it is to you a covering of the eyes for all who are with you, and with all you shall contend.” And Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his handmaids, and they gave birth. For the Lord had shut every womb of Abimelech’s household, because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20:1-18).
At first glance, it’s hard not to sympathize with Avimelech here. When pressed on why he seized Sarah, Avraham’s wife, Avimelech delivers a sound defense: “How can you blame me for bringing Sarah to my palace? I had no idea she’s Avraham’s wife; I thought she was his sister!” He’s innocent because he never knew any better—that’s his argument, and it seems pretty compelling. He even offers to make amends for his actions by showering gifts upon Avraham and Sarah as compensation for putting them through this ordeal. What a bighearted fellow!
But is the king really as naive as he purports to be? Listen carefully to how Avimelech instructs Sarah to treat the gifts he gives Avraham as the two prepare to part ways: “and they shall be for you a כסות עיניים”—a “covering for the eyes” (Gen. 20:16). Hmm…. That doesn’t sound like the sort of remark we’d expect from someone as committed to righteousness as Avimelech claims he is. In fact, what Avimelech is doing here is actively encouraging (or, better: bribing!) Sarah to ignore the wrongdoing that has occurred; to pretend it never happened; to look the other way.[i] So Avimelech’s relationship to the truth isn’t nearly as clean-cut as he presents it initially. It’s not that Avimelech doesn’t know better, or couldn’t have known better; it’s that he’s the sort of guy who “turns a blind eye,” who opts to operate under the self-delusional pretense of “what you see is what you get.”
And this actually makes him a great foil for Avraham, if you think about it.[ii] Avraham, after all, is a man who is constantly engaged in the act of “וישא עיניו,” “lifting his eyes”—he is constantly searching, constantly probing, constantly challenging himself to see beyond his immediate horizons and to encounter reality from new perspectives. In fact, our Parshah is bookended by the “lifting” of Avraham’s “eyes.” At the beginning of our Parshah, it is the act of “lifting eyes” which leads Avraham to discover the men whom he ends up inviting into his home for a meal (Gen. 18:2)—the men who will go on to announce that, against all odds, he and Sarah are to have a son. And at the end of our Parshah, it is the act of “lifting eyes” which leads Avraham to discover, first, the mountain upon which he believes he must sacrifice that son (Gen. 22:4), but, ultimately, to discover the ram which he will then substitute in Yitzchak’s stead (Gen. 22:13).
Nor is it coincidental that all of this takes place in a Parshah called וירא—“and He appeared;” “and He made Himself seen” (Gen. 18:1). The notion of “seeing” is embedded within the very title of our Parshah because, from one lens, our Parshah is in fact all about “sight.” It’s about those who choose to see (Avraham), and those choose not to see (Avimelech). And the way these leaders choose to exercise their faculty of sight directly influences the way in which Hashem then appears to them as a result. Thus:
1. In our Parshah’s opening scene, Hashem appears to Avraham “כחום היום”—in broad daylight (Gen. 18:1). To Avimelech, however, Hashem appears “בחלום הלילה”—in a nighttime dream (Gen. 20:3). Avraham sees Hashem clearly because he is willing to “lift his eyes;” Avimelech sees Hashem through the fog of a nocturnal vision, because he averts his gaze.
2. Moreover: Avimelech, as we saw, is a man of “כסות עיניים”—a man who “covers his eyes,” and those of others, because he does not wish to see anything but that which keeps him comfortable. So Hashem shields him from these realities, never really challenging him to take a good look in the mirror and confront the inconvenient truths he’s consciously avoiding.[iii] Compare this with Avraham, about whom Hashem wonders, at the end of our Parshah’s opening scene: “המכסה אני מאברהם אשר אני עשה”—“[how] can I keep covered from Avraham that which I intend to do” to the wicked city of Sodom” (Gen. 18:17)—i.e., how can I not inform Avraham that I intend to destroy the city of Sodom on account of its sins? Avraham refuses to “cover his eyes,” so his reward is that even that which he ordinarily should not have been able to see—or, in this case, foresee—Hashem uncovers for him.
3. But not only does Avraham merit to have his own eyes uncovered—he merits to “uncover” Hashem’s eyes too, as it were. Thus, when Hashem reveals that He intends to destroy Sodom, Avraham’s response is, in effect: “Hashem, look harder!” “האף תספה צדיק עם רשע,” Avraham challenges: “Shall You wipe up the righteous along with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23). “Can You not find anybody in the city worthy of being saved—maybe fifty individuals, maybe thirty, maybe ten?” (cf. Gen. 18:24-33). Avraham refuses to believe that you can view an entire city through a single lens; he doesn’t even know this society, yet he insists on searching harder, on finding within it a glimmer of light that’s not readily perceptible amidst the prevailing darkness. Compare this to Avimelech’s response when Hashem confronts him over the sins of the Philistines: “הגוי גם צדיק תהרג”—“shall You kill even a righteous nation?” (Gen. 20:4). Stylistically, this retort is markedly similar to Abraham’s, but substantively, it is starkly different. To Avimelech, Philistine society is of singular moral status. The entire nation, to him, is righteous without qualification; Avimelech cannot see in it any sin, cannot spot any variation whatsoever from his preconceived picture of it, because he is not willing to look.
4. So, as mentioned, Hashem plays along with Avimelech’s game: “I know you didn’t know any better,” Hashem allows him. “And that is why,” He continues, “ואחשך… אתך מחטו”—literally, “I withheld you from sinning” (Gen. 20:6), but possibly with a play on the word חשך, darkness, as if to say, “I kept you in the dark from your sin.” Avimelech opts for delusion and so Hashem permits him to remain benighted—to maintain his skewed vision of himself and of his society. Compare this to the praise Hashem heaps upon Avraham at the end of our Parshah: “Now I know that you revere God,” Hashem declares to Avraham, because “לא חשכת את בנך… ממני”—literally, “you did not withhold your son… from Me” (Gen. 22:12),” but, again, with resonances of “חשך,” “darkness,” as if to say: “you did not keep him in the dark from Me.” Because Avraham has committed to enlightening himself, he becomes a source of enlightenment for others as well.
5. And note the interesting way we say “God-revering” in Hebrew (which, as mentioned in the last paragraph, is how Hashem refers to Avraham at the end of our Parshah): “ירא אלקים” (Gen. 22:12). Of course, the verb for “reverence” is spelled differently than the one for “sight”—the root for “sight” is ר.א.י,[iv] the root for “reverence” is י.ר.א—but the letters are all the same and, in conjugated form, the verbs can sound very similar, sometimes nearly identical. So much so, in fact, that there seems to be a sort of game going in our Parshah whereby the two terms—“sight” and “reverence”—are often deliberately contrasted or conflated. We saw a prime example of this in last year’s article when discussing the episode of Hagar’s wandering in the desert (Gen. 21:14ff). But even more relevant for us is the way these terms get invoked during the Avimelech’s confrontation of Avraham. “What did you see,” Avimelech challenges Avraham, “that led you to present Sarah as your sister?”—“מה ראית” (Gen. 20:10). Avimelech senses that he has a problem with one of his senses—that somehow, he cannot see something in his society which Avraham apparently can. To which Avraham replies: “אין יראת אלקים במקום הזה”—“there is no reverence for God in this place” (Gen. 20:11).[v] “You may possess ראיה, sight, of that which lies right in front of your eyes,” Avraham chides Avimelech, in effect, “but anything that isn’t staring you in the face—like Hashem, for instance—you don’t bother to search for. You lack יראה, reverence, for Hashem and for the law, because you do not use your ראיה, your sight to its full capacity.”
So Avraham and Avimelech part ways. But Avimelech doesn’t disappear for good. He returns, shortly later in the Parshah, looking to make a treaty with Avraham and to finally move on from the whole wife-taking ordeal. Yet before Avraham can cut any deals with Avimelech, there is one outstanding issue which he feels must be addressed: “And Abraham rebuked Abimelech about the well of water that the servants of Abimelech had forcibly seized” (Gen. 21:25). Here is Avimelech’s opportunity to accept the personal responsibility he had abdicated a chapter earlier. Instead, however, Avimelech objects: “I do not know who did this thing, neither did you tell me, nor did I hear [of it] until today” (Gen. 21:26). Once again, Avimelech plays the “I-didn’t-know-any-better” card; once again, he turns a blind eye as his subordinates injure Avraham, and, when confronted, rushes to claim the innocence of ignorance. And it’s quite fitting, symbolically, that this drama unfolds as a conflict over wells of water. Avraham digs wells because he is always digging deeper. Avimelech seizes those wells—and, later, deliberately seals them up with dirt (Gen. 26:15ff)—because he doesn’t want to dig deeper. Avimelech’s not interested in discovering what’s hiding beneath life’s outermost layers. He’s satisfied with superficial, surface-level reality, and he makes it his business to oppose anybody who disturbs that reality.
Eventually, however, Avimelech will mature: not in this week’s Parshah, but two weeks from now, when Avraham’s son, Yitzchak, visits Gerar as his father once had, and, like his father, presents his wife as though she were his sister. This time around, though, Avimelech does not take the “sister” immediately into his palace. Instead:
And Isaac dwelt in Gerar. And the men of the place asked about his wife, and he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “[She is] my wife,” [because he said,] “Lest the men of the place kill me because of Rebecca, for she is of comely appearance.” And it came to pass, when he had been there for many days, that Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, gazed out of the window, and he saw, and behold, Isaac was jesting with Rebecca his wife. So Abimelech called Isaac, and he said, “Behold, she is your wife; so how could you have said, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘Lest I die because of her. ‘” And Abimelech said, “What have you done to us? The most prominent of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” And Abimelech commanded all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death” (Gen. 26:16-11).
How remarkable: placed in just about the very same circumstances as those of a generation earlier, Avimelech this time saves himself from sin by “gazing out the window”—“וישקף בעד החלון” (Gen. 26:8). This is the first time we find Avimelech peering out of his orbit; turning his focus beyond his immediate surroundings; venturing his vision into the unknown. And the verb for “gaze”—ש.ק.ף—is most instructive. That, after all, is the very same verb attributed to Avraham’s guests as they turn their attention away from their meal and upon Sodom, in the lead-up to its destruction: “and they gazed upon Sodom”—“וישקפו על פני סדם” (Gen. 18:16). Until now, that story—the story of Avraham, the guests, and the prophecy concerning Sodom—has served as our point of contrast between Avraham and Avimelech. Now, though, in Avimelech’s eleventh hour—he leaves the story for good shortly after his interaction with Yitzchak—it is the very same scene, from all the way back at the beginning of our Parshah, which provides us with the thread that allows us to tie it all together—to begin to bring Avimelech’s journey full-circle. Through the act of “וישקפו,” Avraham’s guests—up to this point, lying cozily under the shade of Avraham’s tree, and partaking of a plentiful repast (cf. Gen. 18:8)—teach us that we cannot shield ourselves from outside troubles in this way—cannot imagine that all is good everywhere simply because all is good here—but that we must instead open our eyes and “go down to see” (Gen. 18:21), to carefully investigate, that which profoundly discomfits us. So too Avimelech, through the act of “וישקף,” notices, for the first time, something that complicates his own picture of reality, and takes his own initiative—without Hashem prodding him on—to “get to the bottom of it.”
Granted, Avimelech does not come around right away; a few verses later, he’s back in the business of sealing up wells (Gen. 26:15ff, as mentioned earlier). But soon enough, he abandons these efforts (Gen. 26:22), and decides that he’d like to make peace with Avraham’s family once and for all. Yitzchak, for his part, naturally looks upon these overtures with suspicion: “”Why have you come to me,” he wonders, “given that you hate me, and you sent me away from you?” (Gen. 26:27). To which Avimelech offers the most apt response he possibly could have: “[We come],” he confesses, “because ראו ראינו—we have seen, O, we have seen—that the Lord has been with you” (Gen. 26:28). For so long, Avimelech could not see—would not allow himself to see—where Avraham and Yitzchak were coming from. But in his last act, he finally comes to them, to consider the view from their standpoint—and suddenly, all that he’d been blind to becomes clear.
In the end, then, Avimelech emerges as an unlikely model—at a time when so many in contemporary society are bemoaning our collective unwillingness to see beyond our own horizons—of a man who, slowly but surely, learns to remove his blinders and to recognize reality from the perspective of those who see the world differently than he does. And it is by exercising this faculty of ראיה, of courageous seeking and searching, that we, like he, will ultimately develop יראה: respect for each other, and reverence for Hashem above.
[i] Perhaps it is in a nod to this episode that the Torah later teaches: “You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear sighted and corrupts just words” (Exod. 23:8); and, later: “You shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and corrupts just words” (Deut. 16:19).
[ii] Indeed, their very names suggest a conflict. Avimelech’s name means “my father is king;” he is, from birth, a champion of the old guard, a defender of established norms, a valiant preserver of the status quo. By contrast, Avraham’s name means “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:5); he is a man who smashes his own father’s idols (Gen. Rabb. 38:13), a man who vanquishes entire kingdoms (Gen. 14:1ff), a man who arrives in Canaan on a mission to bring blessing to “all families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3), regardless of social or economic standing, and a man who “instructs his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord and perform righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19).
[iii] It is along these lines that Chazal teach us, “בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך כך מוליכין אותו,” i.e., “to the place a man wishes to go—to there does Hashem lead him” (Makkot 10b). The radical upshot of this principle is that there are times when Hashem tells man not what he needs to hear, but what he wants to hear. Thus, for example, Hashem permits Bilaam to visit Israel’s enemies in Moav, despite patently disapproving of this meeting, because Bilaam’s persistent appeals make it clear that he is determined to go down this path and that he will not heed attempts to dissuade him (see Num. 22:2-35). I am arguing that a similar phenomenon underlies Hashem’s exchange with Avimelech in our Parshah: Hashem plays along with the premise that Avimelech is innocent—though Avimelech is not innocent—because Avimelech has shown himself unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions.
[iv] Growing up, I was always taught that the root of the word “sight” is “ר.א.ה.” Just this week, however, I learned that Biblical grammarians are pretty much in universal accord that the root is in fact “ר.א.י”—just as the root for “building” is actually “ב.נ.י,” not “ב.נ.ה,” and the root for “revealing” is actually “ג.ל.י,” not “ג.ל.ה,” etc. In other words, most of the so-called “ל-ה verbs”—verbs that we think of as ending in the letter “ה”—are in fact “ל-י verbs” when you analyze them carefully. The evidence for this assertion goes beyond the scope of this article, but if you’re interested, leave a note in the comments and it will be my pleasure to reply next week with a little more detail on this subject.
[v] This claim is not undermined by the earlier verse: “And Abimelech arose early in the morning, and he summoned all his servants, and he spoke all these words in their ears; and the men were very frightened [וייראו האנשים מאד]” (Gen. 20:8). Here it is neither Hashem, nor Hashem’s law, which the Philistines revere; it is merely the threat of punishment which they fear.
Thoughts? Questions? Insights? Please feel free to share them in the comments below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated!