Parashat VaYera begins and ends with ways of seeing the UnSeeable, that is, G*d. The Torah shows us that there are many ways to see. The first opens the parashah and names it:
וירא אליו ה באלוני ממרא
VaYera elav HaShem b’eylonei Mamre
HaShem appeared to (literally, “was seen by”) Abraham at the oak grove at Mamre. (Gen.18.1)
This “seeing”, what religion calls revelation, develops a certain specific type of experience of the holy, signified by the very next verse. Notice that the verb is the same; it is only the conjugation that changes, from “was seen” to “saw”:
וירא והנה שלושה אנשים
VaYar v’hineh shloshah anashim
He saw three people
Generations of commentators puzzled over this juxtaposition. Rashbam (Shlomo ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson) suggested that HaShem appeared to Abraham not directly but via three angels disguised to look like human beings, that conveyed HaShem’s message. This goes well with our received tradition that we are not able to see HaShem and live.
Another interpretation: when he “saw” HaShem, what he was actually seeing was the reflection of the divine image in the three strangers who appeared to him. This explanation goes well with the following story, in which he goes out of his way to welcome the people, making them lunch and giving them a safe place to rest on their journey.
Which one is correct? both are, and neither. According to Jewish tradition, every verse has seventy possible interpretations.
What else is seen in this parashah? The other end of this parashah describes the Akedah, the “binding of Isaac” during which the father nearly sacrifices the son. Oceans of ink have been applied to realms of paper in interpretive struggle with this story, all with unsatisfying results; even when we manage to make some kind of logical sense of the story, it is still horrifying.
Seen through the lens of seeing and being seen, however, it is instructive to note the occurrence of the same verb and to try to understand what might be expressed, or hinted at, from that perspective:
וירא והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו
VaYar v’hineh ayil akhar ne’ekhaz basvakh b’karnarv
He saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns (Gen.22.13)
And thus at the fateful moment Abraham, apparently not content to leave an altar unused even when he heard the voice of HaShem told him to lay off his son, saw a ram that he could offer up in place of the human being.
The end of the Akedah is not often remarked upon, since we’re all too busy reeling from the main event. But note the parallel to the beginning of the parashah:
בהר ה יראה
B’har HaShem Yera’eh
At HaShem’s mountain it shall be seen (Gen.22.14)
At the beginning and at the end of this parashah we have instances of VaYar and VaYera, to see and to be seen. Once at an oak grove, where seeing prompted one human being to offer another water, and more, in the harsh desert environment; and once atop a mountain, where the seeing once again forestalled death.
What is it that ”shall be seen”? Is there something about “seeing G*d” that in some way helps us find our way from death toward life? In this parashah, at least, it seems so.
If to see G*d is to see – to understand, perhaps – life itself, then what can it possibly mean that “no one can see Me and live”? This is what HaShem will tell Moshe, down the road. Jewish mystical speculation offers one thought: that although we long to discover the very heart of existence, it will forever be a mystery to us – and we court our own end when we seek to look behind the veil.
Humility is key to seeing, then. You can’t see it all. But oh, what you will see, when you get a glimpse through the veil of the holy in this life.