“All are blind until God brings light to their eyes” (Breshi tRabbah 53:19)
This parasha is nothing if not eye-opening. Literally. Almost everywhere throughout the parasha, someone is opening their eyes and seeing something. On a cursory search, I found 12 instances of the word “to see” (r-a-h”). In some earlier studies in Bereshit, I remember learning that when that word comes up, it signals that something more than mere sight is going on here; rather, the person is becoming aware, there is a transcendent moment where the seer is truly experiencing something beyond just looking at something.
Four times in this parasha, we read that someone lifts up/opens their eyes and sees, three times with Abraham and once with Hagar. In fact, with Abraham, he “sees” three times in the first two sentences of the whole parasha; it’s as if he sees, then really sees, then really, really sees . He lifts his eyes to see the messengers that tell him he’ll have a son with Sarah, he lifts his eyes to see the place to go for the “Akedah” when he’s supposed to sacrifice his son Isaac, and he lifts his eyes to see the ram in the thicket, when his hand is stayed by God’s messenger.
But in between these Abraham texts another story of sight, and it’s much harder for me to read than the Akedah. It is Hagar’s ordeal in the desert. Sarah had become jealous of her handmaiden Hagar, and the son she bore, Ishmael. Some time after Isaac is born, Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael leave, so Abraham rises early in the morning (as he does when he’s about to go with Isaac), gives her bread and water, and sends her out to the wilderness. By the way, the use of the same phrase isn’t a coincidence: in both cases, one of Abraham’s sons is about to be in mortal danger, and in both cases, Divine intervention saves them.
Anyway, the water’s gone, the food is gone, and finally, Hagar has nothing left but to walk away from her child so she won’t have to watch him die. She wants to be blind. Ishmael must have cried out, because God heard it and calls to Hagar directly, not through a messenger or angel: “Have no fear”. The Hebrew root for fear/reverence/awe (y-r-a) is very close to the word we’ve seen over and over again here (r-a-h); again, no coincidence. Immediately after that, God opens Hagar’s eyes -she sees a life-giving well and receives a life-giving prophecy that her son will live and become leader of a great nation.
There are many more examples of this verb’s “appearance” in this pararsha, but as the rabbis say, “What are we to learn from this?” It’s exactly those moments of “vayera”, sight with a Divine imprint, that give us a future. Perhaps it is we can walk around like Hagar when she was at her lowest moment, wandering in the wilderness and wishing for blindness. We can walk away from the despair and oppression, the fear and the pain of those around us, trying to be blind because we think it will be easier for us to bear. But when we allow our eyes to be opened, we can see that a life-giving well of hope is right in front of us.