One of the most powerful episodes in the Book of Bereishit is the one in which Yaakov steals Esav’s blessings. It has it all: family politics, subterfuge, anger and pathos. And it never would have happened had Yitzchak not been blind.

The Torah prefaces the episode with the words [Bereishit 27:1] “It came to pass when Yitzchak was old and his eyes were too dim to see…” Because of Yitzchak’s shortness of vision he doesn’t realize that he has given the blessings meant for Esav to his brother Yaakov. Why couldn’t Yitzchak see? The most straightforward answer would be that Hashem ensured that he developed some kind of cataract so that he would be thwarted in his attempt to give his blessing to Esav. Not surprisingly, the Midrash offers more esoteric answers. In this shiur, we’re going to look at one of these answers, presented in the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [28a][1]. The Talmud is discussing the Holy Grail: the secret to longevity. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha[2] attributes his long life to “never having looked at an evil person”. Rabbi Yochanan adds to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha’s words, suggesting that it is forbidden to look at an evil person. Rabbi Eleazar adds that the eyes of one who looks at an evil person will become dim. His proof is Yitzchak, whose eyes became dim by looking at [sic] “the wicked Esav (Esav ha’rasha)”.

Let’s take the Talmud at face value, and assume that looking at an evil person damages the eyes. Why, then, didn’t Yitzchak’s father Avraham also suffer from bad eyes? Avraham raised Yishmael, who was also a handful. Did Avraham always look away from Yishmael when they spoke? Perhaps Yitzchak spent more years with Esav than Avraham spent with Yishmael[3], such that Yitzchak suffered a cumulative effect? Or perhaps Esav was more evil than Yishmael? After all, only Esav is referred to as a “rasha”. Let’s dig a bit deeper here. Who was the more evil person: Yishmael or Esav? Our first inclination would be to say “the wicked Esav”. But when we look in the Torah, it seems that Yishmael is far more pernicious. Before he is born an angel tells his mother [Bereishit 16:12] “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be upon all and everyone’s hand upon him”. His behaviour eventually gets him summarily thrown out of Avraham’s home. Esav, on the other hand, commits only one crime: he marries two Hittite women, which causes his parents to become [Bereishit 26:35] “bitter”. While Esav is accused of murder, rape, and idolatry, it is the Midrash that makes these accusations and not the Torah. The upshot is that if we would have expected someone to have bad eyesight as a result of years of looking at his evil son, it would be Avraham and not Yitzchak.

Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the “Torah Temima”, makes an interesting comment on the causes of blindness. The Talmud in Tractate Hagigga [16a] teaches that a person who looks at a rainbow will be blinded. This ruling seems to fly in the face of the fact that we are commanded to make a blessing (Zocher Ha’brit) whenever we see a rainbow. I myself made this blessing on Sunday. The Talmud would have us think that if we saw a rainbow and didn’t go blind afterwards we should make the Ha’Gomel blessing, said by one who has survived a dangerous experience! Rav Epstein solves this contradiction by differentiating between “looking” – “ro’eh” – and “staring” – “mistakel[4]. A person who merely “looks” at a rainbow must make a blessing, while a person who “stares” at a rainbow can go blind. What is the difference between “looking” and “staring”? Is it a function of time? If I look at a rainbow for more than, say, seventeen seconds, will I go blind? I suggest that the difference is qualitative and not quantitative, and further, it has nothing to do with eyesight. The word “see” can be used as a synonym for the word “understand”. When I say “I see what you mean”, I am really saying “I understand what you mean”. This correspondence is true in Hebrew as well as English. I suggest, then, that “looking” means “a cursory understanding” while “staring” means “a deep understanding”, or “trying to understand the inner essence”. If we look at a rainbow and see a beautiful array of colours that reminds us that Hashem will never again destroy the world, then we must make a blessing. But if we try to understand the inner essence of the rainbow – why Hashem chose to embed His eternal promise within an easily explainable physical phenomenon – then we will go crazy.

The same idea can be used to explain the idea of looking at an evil person. If one tries to understand the source of evil, why Hashem allows evil to exist, and why people are all too often rewarded despite their evil deeds, then he will become “blind” and his own ability to differentiate between good and evil will be impacted. Avraham and Yitzchak have completely different ways of dealing with evil. Avraham sees evil and he tries to mitigate its effects. He sees that Yishmael is adversely affecting Yitzchak and he throws Yishmael out the door[5]. When Yitzchak, however, sees similar attributes in Esav, he tries to cultivate Esav, regardless of the adverse effects Esav’s presence might have on Yaakov. Time and time again Yitzchak tries to cultivate Esav and time and time again he is disappointed. Esav treats the birthright – the right to lead his future people in worship – with complete and entire contempt. Esav marries Hittite women. And after Yaakov steals his blessing, Esav makes it his life’s goal to kill him. Yitzchak remains unfazed. He will try to understand the source of Esav’s evil even if it tears his entire family apart.

The Torah teaches that Yitzchak’s form of prayer was [Bereishit 24:63] “La’suach”.   Rav J.B. Soloveichik [Moriah, 1973] interprets this word via the verse in Tehillim [102:1] “A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself and pours out his speech (yishpoch sicho) before Hashem”. Yitzchak retreated before Hashem. He would contort himself in an attempt to understand the Divine. Avraham, on the other hand, stood tall before Hashem. When he bargains with Hashem in a futile attempt to save the people of Sodom, the Midrash describes him as grabbing onto Hashem’s cloak, not letting Him go.  Yitzchak tries to understand why: Why do You let evil exist? Avraham does not care why. He is concerned with what and how: While I cannot comprehend evil, what am I to do when faced by it? How can I combat evil? Avraham sees evil in his home and he removes it before it can spread. Yitzchak sees evil in his home and in his attempt to get his head around it, he is blinded. And in the end, the wrong son is forced to leave home.

Hashem’s world is hugely complex, and man’s nature is to want to understand the inner mechanics. This desire, while legitimate, is fraught with danger if we allow it to paralyze us. At the end of the day, a Jew’s life revolves around action. The Torah is a book of mitzvot whose purpose is to teach us how to react to any and every possible event and circumstance we might encounter. This must be our only guide. Because if we fritter and waste our time staring at the sun, then we will most surely go blind.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara

[1] We’re not going to discuss my favorite Midrash, brought by Rashi, which explains that when Yitzchak was nearly sacrificed the angels cried and their tears damaged Yitzchak’s eyes. Perhaps Avraham didn’t suffer the same fate because he was looking down at the time.

[2] Some identify Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha as the son of Rabbi Akiva, who was bald (kere’ach). He had to change his name so that the Romans wouldn’t murder him like they murdered his father.

[3] It can be shown that Yishmael lived with his father for about 17 years, while Esav lived with his father for 47 years (137life – 14Shem/Ever – 20Lavan – 30Joseph – 97 feast + 2 famine – 17Egypt = 47).

[4] The translation of “mistakel” as “stare” does not particularly mesh with Modern Hebrew, where the word “mistakel” usually means “a short glimpse”. It is good to remember the words of Rav Eliyahu Zini who always told us that translating the Torah with the “Hebrew of [Modern] Tel Aviv” can sometimes be a recipe for disaster.

[5] Albeit it at the behest of his wife. Rivkah didn’t make a similar suggestion to Yitzchak because she knew he would never agree.