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Face to face

Vayera | Genesis 18:1-22:24

Ask any artist: it’s all about seeing. We don’t see the world raw. Seeing requires the intentional act of focusing our eyes on one particular part of a larger visual field. At times, something new comes suddenly into view. But we frequently see things anew even if they have been there all along; we just never noticed them.

That’s the way it was with the ram that Abraham finally saw and substituted for Isaac. God created it, say the rabbis, at the dawn of creation, and positioned it just so, for Abraham to see. Why, then, didn’t he see it before tying up Isaac and coming within an inch of killing him?

Abraham was too intent on the sacrifice to look. Only after the angel stayed his hand did he look up and see. But even so, it was only secondarily that he saw the ram, say the Tosafot. What he saw first was God, hovering behind the angel’s staying hand.

This idea emerges from a close reading of vayisa Avraham et einav, “Abraham lifted up his eyes.” The first three words end in letters that spell emet, “truth,” and Truth, say the Tosafot, is another name for God. No less than the ram, God too was there all the time. Only when Abraham looked could he see “the truth” — God.

When we speak of “seeing a truth,” however, we mean it metaphorically. What did Abraham literally see that so strikingly gave him the truth?

Picture the scene. Abraham leans over his son, about to drive the knife home, when the angel diverts his attention, and he “lifts his eyes and sees.” Where does a father look at such a time, if not into the eyes of the son he is about to lose? Abraham’s truth was revealed in Isaac’s eyes.

So the angel jolts Abraham into realizing it is his son he is about to sacrifice; he thereupon looks into the eyes of Isaac, who stares back at him. With the sacrifice suspended, they actually see each other for who they really are. The moment of truth arrives at the miracle of meeting which the Hebrew perfectly describes as panim el panim, “face to face.”

Only humans communicate face to face, says philosopher Roger Scruton. It is in each other’s eyes that we find the frightening vacancy of evasion, the meaningful glance of understanding, the certain sign of love.

“To this day,” says the biblical author, the place where Abraham and Isaac finally see each other is called Adonai Yeira’eh, “God is seen.”

It’s all about seeing: stopping the task at hand and seeing into each other’s eyes. It’s easy to hate collectivities of people, ignore the poverty of faceless and nameless others, or even sacrifice individual people whose eyes we avoid. But look into the eyes of a single person who is temporarily at our mercy, and we cannot fail to see the truth: the presence of God right there in the other person’s face.

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