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October 30, 2015

Lifting Our Eyes (Parashat Vayeira)

Stephanie D. Kolin

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“Abraham… I’m going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  That city where your nephew lives with his wife and kids?  They are a total mess, unsalvageable sinners, and I am entirely done with them.”

In our Torah portion this week, God shares this ominous divine plan of destruction with Abraham, his chosen leader.  And Abraham is distraught.  He’s been taught by this same God to be compassionate, to be merciful, and above all, to act justly.  And here, God seems to be 0 for 3.  So Abraham starts negotiating with God for the lives of the city dwellers and ultimately, God agrees to spare the people according to Abraham’s terms.  Sodom and Gomorrah’s actions, however, drive God to rain fire upon the cities and destroy them completely anyway. 

And we, along with Abraham, are left to deal with the aftermath.  Abraham returns early the next morning to the very spot on which he was arguing with God the day before.  Maybe he is hopeful that all his pleading with God worked and he’d find two repentant cities still standing.  Maybe in his anxiety, he couldn’t sleep all night and so he gets up to see what he can see.  And there he stands.

I just can’t shake the image that Torah paints: “Vayashkef al pnei s’dom v’amora… vayar v’hinei alah kitor ha’aretz k’kitor hakivshan—He looked down upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and he saw, he beheld, the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln.”

And then silence.

Sforno, a fourteenth-century Bible scholar, teaches that the use of the word “vayashkef—he looked” is only used in instances in which the person looking is complicit in the destruction at which he gazes.  So Sforno says this is a look of enmity for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, an agreement that God did the right thing to these sinners.

Honestly, though, I don’t know.  The word “vayashkef—he looked”… it doesn’t just mean look. “L’shakef” means “to reflect.”  Perhaps, like a mirror, he sees his own reflection in the destruction below.  What if he had done more? What if he could have saved them?  I think we are reading an Abraham who’s experiencing despair. And why not?  He tried to save the people and he failed. There’s no way to fix it now. What’s not to feel despair over?

So where are we in this story? How do we see ourselves reflected in Abraham, reflected in the devastation below him, and how do we do it on Shabbat, a day that is about hope, a day that is intended to be a taste of the world to come?  I think we can feel Abraham’s heart here.  Which of us hasn’t looked at something and thought, “This is a complete disaster, how will we ever overcome this?”  I sometimes feel that way about the world these days. About the unrelenting stories of gun violence, about the next African American young woman violently ejected from her classroom, about the only increasing rates of homelessness that we just learned this week. I feel that way reading about Israel right now, a country that I deeply love, and as the violence escalates, I feel overwhelmed because I don’t see how we’ll get past this moment.  Or… pick your poison… wouldn’t it be easy to look out over our smoldering cities and behold and stand there like Abraham did? 

And yet.

There is a Talmudic term called “ye’ush.” 1 Ye’ush means to give up hope.  It’s used as a legal category when it comes to returning lost objects.  If I lose my prayer book, which has my name on it, and you find it, halachically—by Jewish law, you have to give it back to me, because I have not experienced ye’ush over it: I have a legitimate expectation that I’ll get it back. But if I lose twenty bucks in the streets of New York City and you find it, you can keep it, because I would have no reasonable expectation of ever finding it again.  My experience of ye’ush, of hopelessness, means that I relinquish my right to that object. 

Ye’ush is appropriate at times—that’s why there’s a legal category for it. But perhaps Abraham’s actions in this parashah also reveal for us the times when ye’ush, giving up, is not permitted. 

See, Abraham eventually leaves that place, and by the time we are at the end of this parashah, we find him on top of a different mountain with his son, Isaac. Isaac is tied up and Abraham is about to sacrifice him, just as God told him to.  But in this moment, Abraham does not wallow in his desperation.  We find the same Hebrew words2  from when he gazed out over the destroyed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The angel stops Abraham’s hand from striking his son and instead of silently looking at this terrible, terrible moment, the text says, “Vayisa Avraham et einav—He lifted his eyes.”  “Vayar v’hinei—and he saw and he beheld.”  This time what he sees is the ram in the thicket3—an alternative way out of the destruction he nearly wrought, the pain in which he was nearly complicit. But here, instead of looking down al pnei, over the cities, yisa et einav—he raised his eyes up. 

After all of that destruction that he just witnessed, he still has the courage to look for the ram, to believe there is another way, to overcome his feelings of ye’ush, of hopelessness.  And in doing so, he does not relinquish his rights to changing the situation. 

It is human to feel the weight of the world creep into our hearts.  But it is also human—and divine—to look for the ram in the thicket. To raise our eyes even in the face of great overwhelm and creeping despair.  To seek out the strategy that will work, to commit to achieving peace, to know that we can heal pervasive suffering and to work for that healing. 

We draw on our Torah ancestors not because they are unflawed characters, but because we vayashkef: we see ourselves also reflected in their humanity.  And we aspire to be that real, that brave.

May we acknowledge the difficult times before us, but may we also seek out hope, lift our eyes, and refuse ye’ush in the moments that matter most.


1. Baba Metzia 21a-b (back to text)

2. Also check out the same language when Abraham sees the three strangers/angels/men approach his tent in the beginning of the parashah, Gen 18:2 as well as Gen 22:4, when Abraham sees from afar the mountain on which he is to sacrifice his son, Isaac. (There is a lot of seeing and looking and eyes opening in this parashah.) (back to text)

3. Left on the cutting room floor, Pirkei Avot 5:6 teaches us that the ram in the thicket was created bein hashmashot and was always there, from the dawn of time. What might that mean for any of us who see before us only one way, or inevitable destruction? (back to text)