“Do You See What I See?” Parashat Vayera 5781

Parashat Vayera is one of the more aptly named portions in the Torah. “Vayera” means “appeared” and the portion is full of references of different people looking at all sorts of different things. In this lesson, we will be unpacking some of the different ways in which the Torah describes the process of “looking”.

In the beginning of the portion, Abraham is visited by three mysterious men [Bereishit 18:1-2]: “He was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent”. How does one “lift his eyes”? How is “lifting one’s eyes” different than “seeing”? And why does the verse twice tell us that Abraham “saw”? A few verses later, as the three men bid farewell to Abraham, we are told [Bereishit 18:16 ] “The men arose from there and they looked upon Sodom”. Apparently they looked sternly upon Sodom, because one chapter later they reduce Sodom and its environs to rubble. To summarize, we have encountered three words that apparently share the same meaning: “lifted his eyes” (vayi’sa et enav), “saw” (va’yar), and “looked upon” (va’yashkef). Are these words interchangeable? Is one word preferable over the others? If so, in which situations would we use one word but not the other?

Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in the eleventh century in France, is bothered by the repeated use of the word “va’yar” – “he saw”[1]. Rashi comments, “What does the repetition of this word imply? The first time it has its ordinary meaning (“he looked”), the second time it is used it refers to understanding: [Abraham] saw that they were standing in one spot and so he understood that they had no desire to cause him any trouble. Although they knew that he would go to meet them, they nevertheless remained where they were out of respect to him and to show him that they wished to spare him trouble; he, therefore, took the initiative and ran towards them.” According to Rashi, the word “va’yar” must be understood contextually: in one instance it means “saw” and in another instance it means “understood”, as in “I see what you mean”. As for the word “va’yashkef”, translated above as “looked upon”, Rashi asserts that while outwardly similar to “seeing”, the word “va’yashkef” carries insidious undertones. Each time it is used in the Torah, other than one instance, it foreshadows that evil things are about to occur.

There are additional instances in Parashat Vayera in which these three words are used seemingly interchangeably. For instance, in the story of the binding of Isaac (Akeida), we are told that after G-d commanded Abraham not to kill his son [Bereishit 22:13], “Abraham lifted up his eyes (va’yisa et enav), and he saw (va’yar), and, behold, there was a ram, caught in a tree by its horns”.  How can we implement Rashi’s previous comments to better understand the verse? In fact, here Rashi is silent. He does not explain from what or to where Abraham “lifted his eyes” nor why the Torah states, “[Abraham] saw… and there was a ram” instead of simply stating, “Abraham saw a ram”.

In this lesson, we will try to construct a globally implementable classification scheme for “seeing”, “looking down”, and “lifting one’s eyes”. Our scheme is based on concepts from air defence. The primary task of the air defender is to keep his part of the sky clean. In order to accomplish this task, an air defence system must first have a clear “sky picture” of what is flying around in the section of the sky that he must defend. First, all flying objects must be detected. Then, each detection is classified into one of three groups: “friendly”, “hostile”, or “safe”, such as passenger planes. The final step in building a sky picture is predicting the future trajectory of each object. Only after the sky picture has been completed can the air defence system determine which hostile aircraft pose a threat and must be engaged. Modern air defence systems update their sky picture constantly in order to provide the most up-to-date situational awareness to their operators.

To help build a sky picture, an air defence system is equipped with a radar[2]. One example is the ELTA EL/M-2084 Multi Mission Radar (MMR), used in a number of Israeli missile defence systems. The MMR can detect incredibly small objects at incredibly large distances, giving the air defenders a comprehensive sky picture that maximizes system performance. Radars typically begin a mission in “surveillance mode”, also called “search mode”, in which the radar scans the sky, searching for targets. It does this by emitting radar waves and waiting for a “return”, meaning that the wave has bounced off of something. If a pre-defined number of successive scans produce a return, the radar concludes that it has “detected” a target. Once a target has been detected, the radar moves to “tracking mode”, in which it emits radar waves at a higher frequency in order to track the target with increased precision[3]. The radar continues to track the target until it is engaged and destroyed.

I propose that these three radar states can be mapped onto the three synonyms for looking, “seeing”, “looking down”, and “lifting one’s eyes”, where “lifting one’s eyes” corresponds to search mode, “seeing” corresponds to target detection, and “looking down” corresponds to track mode. When a person “lifts his eyes”, he is searching for something in particular. He is searching in a direction in which he expects to detect targets. In the beginning of the portion, when Abraham lifts his eyes, he is searching for guests. On this scorching hot day, Abraham found himself alone. As he was the archetype of kindness, sitting alone with his wife was a suboptimal situation. Indeed, Rashi comments that Abraham was sitting specifically “at the entrance of the tent” in order to have a better line of sight with which to detect passers-by. Abraham then “sees” the three men. He detects (sees) that they are potential guests, and he readies himself to host them. Then, he detects (sees) that they are hesitant to enter his home, as per Rashi’s explanation, and so he runs out to greet them.

When the three men, who our sages in the Midrash identify as angels, conclude their visit, they “look down” at Sodom, which has been designated by G-d as a target for destruction. The word “va’yashkef” shares the same root as the word “shakuf” – transparent. The angels know everything there is to know about Sodom. They track it, charting its trajectory, until they have determined that it poses a clear and present threat and the only recourse is its destruction.

Let us apply our classification scheme to the story of the Akeida. To recap, G-d has commanded Abraham to take Isaac [Bereishit 22:2] “to the Land of Moriah, and offer him there on one of the heights that I will show you”. G-d does not specify the precise location. Abraham travels to the Land of Moriah and suddenly [Bereishit 22:4] “Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar.” Abraham knew in his heart of hearts where to search, and he detected (saw) the precise location. Rashi comments, “He saw a cloud lowering over the mountain”. He saw G-dliness and was hypnotically attracted to it. When G-d commands Abraham to stay his hand, “Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw, and, behold, there was a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns”. Abraham understood he had come to this mountain of G-dliness for a reason: if not to offer his son then to offer something else. And so he searched for a target. When he sees the ram, he understands – he detects – why it is caught in the thicket. He understands that this ram, and not his son, had been destined for sacrifice [Bereishit 22:13] “So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son”. It was Abraham’s finest hour. He surveyed the skies, he detected his target and he successfully completed his mission.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] Rashi seems to have no problems with the concept of “lifting one’s eyes”.

[2] Older air defence systems usually have two radars, a surveillance radar and a fire control radar, while most modern air defence systems have only one multifunction radar.

[3] Most modern radars, including the MMR, can continue to search for new targets while simultaneously tracking a large number of detected targets. This is typically accomplished using Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) technology.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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