Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yera 5766/ November 19, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




When Seeing is More than Sight


 Yonah Bar-Maoz


Department of Bible and Ha-Keter Mikraot Gedolot Project


Abraham’s behavior in the land of Moriah raises several puzzling questions, one of which is the apparent act of thievery he committed when he sacrificed the ram that he noticed caught in the thicket near him. [1]   A ram (Heb. ayil), in contrast to a deer (Heb. ayal), is not a wild but a domesticated animal.   Any ram wandering about in the highlands has an owner and may not be seized and slaughtered by just anyone who wishes to do so, nor surely sacrificed to G-d, who “loves justice and hates robbery with a burnt offering” (Is. 61:8).  Such an action is tantamount to committing a transgression in order to perform a commandment (mitzvah haba’a ba-averah), a sort of precedent for the case of the poor man’s lamb (cf. II Samuel 12:1-4).   After such an action, how are we to understand the over-exaggerated main blessing that G-d gave Abraham after he sacrificed the ram (Gen. 22:16-18): [2]

By Myself I swear, the Lord declares:  Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your favored one, I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.  All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.

What’s in a Phrase?

The clue to this puzzling question lies in understanding the expression, “when Abraham looked up [Heb. va-yisa Avraham et einav].”   This expression is a sort of code indicating to the reader to go beyond the superficial perception of reality to another hidden dimension.  The prototype for this way of understanding the expression is the story that appears in Joshua 5:13-15:

Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand.  Joshua went up to him and asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?”  He replied, “No, I am captain of the Lord’s host.  Now I have come!”  Joshua threw himself face down to the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, “What does my lord command his servant?”  The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.”   And Joshua did so.

The sudden appearance of a captain of the Lord’s host is not something which commonly takes place in reality, therefore no one saw him and no one forestalled him from approaching the head of the Israelite forces with drawn sword in hand. [3]   The way Joshua responded to his appearance makes it clear to us that seeing such a thing on the eve of battle with the enemy was most suspicious, and he obviously was not visible to others, because he would have been stopped before reaching Joshua.

Seeing as a Code

So the expression, “looking up he saw,” is a code for a special type of vision. We should ascribe this significance only when the phrase cannot be understood literally as looking up at something from a lower vantage point.  Therefore one should not ascribe hidden meaning to the words, “And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars” (Deut. 4:19), or to similar expressions.   In the Abraham story, however, this expression cannot be interpreted literally, for there is nothing to indicate that Abraham was standing at a low spot and the ram higher up.

Moreover, when the phrase in context is ambiguous and the reader might be likely to overlook the meaning of the expression as a code, the Torah uses a stylistic exception to stress that it is a code:   in the binding of Isaac, G-d commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering “on one of the heights.”   Abraham went off in search of the designated spot, and on the third day he saw the place (Genesis 22:4).  

Lest we imagine that Abraham, in the course his of journey, happened on a low place and from there saw the top of a mountain, the Torah tells us:  “On the third day Abraham looked up [va-yisa]...”  This is a clear stylistic exception, for when a verse opens with an expression of time, the continuation should be in the absolute past:   one would expect the Hebrew verb to be nasa Avraham, not the future form with a vav (va-yisa) as it occurs here. This can be seen from other verses in Scripture:   “Some time later, the word of the Lord came (haya) to Abraham in a vision” (Gen. 15:1); “Some time later, the cupbearer and the baker of the king of Egypt gave offense (hat’u) to their lord the king of Egypt” (Gen. 40:1), and others. [4]

So too in the story of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent, in the heat of the day:  Looking up, he saw [va-yar] three men standing near him.   As soon as he saw them [va-yar], he ran … to greet them” (Gen. 18:2).  Since it could be interpreted that from his sitting position Abraham had to look up to see the passersby, Scripture departs from the usual style and repeats the word va-yar (“he saw”), making it clear to us that the first occurrence of va-yar is part of the code expression and not an indication that his gaze was upward. We are not speaking of physical seeing but rather of some sort of spiritual insight.

Looking from on High

Those commentators who would adhere to the plain sense of the text [5] have sought an elevated vantage point from which Abraham could see the entire land, in line with the verse in Scriptures:  “And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had parted from him, ‘Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever” (Gen. 13:14-15); but it is impossible to see the entire land of Canaan, neither according to its most limited boundaries from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt (see Numbers 34), nor according to the extensive boundaries in the time of Abraham, [6] from the Euphrates to the river of Egypt (Gen. 15:18-21), and certainly not by looking from a lower vantage point to a higher one.   But if we view the words, “raise your eyes and look,” as a code for seeing on a hidden level, Abraham could encompass the entire land in his mind’s eye. [7]

In Genesis 13 Lot, as well, lifts up his eyes:   Lot looked about him [va-yisa Lot einav] and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it – this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah – all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Gen.13:10).   Here, too, the text could not be referring to simple seeing, for there is no vantage point from which Lot could have lifted up his gaze to see the entire plain of the Jordan; quite the contrary, he would have had to look down.  If so, what Scripture seeks to tell us is that Lot was examining the place in his mind’s eye, attempting to assess its spiritual quality:   if the land was so blessed, like the garden of the Lord, it was undoubtedly a land worth choosing.   Scripture responds to this in the next few verses, alluding to a moral judgment that Lot had overlooked in his weighing the issue:  “Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord” (verse 13). [8]

Love at First Sight

Isaac and Rebekah are described as looking up at each other, and here too it is clear that they are not physically looking upward, rather looking deeply:  “And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.  Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac.  She alighted from the camel [alt:  “fell from the camel”]” (Gen. 24:53-54).  Caravans of camels were a frequent sight in those days, and seeing a man in a field was also not exceptional; if Scripture found it necessary to note sighting these, then that is to indicate that both Isaac and Rebekah sensed on a hidden level that there was a special bond between them even at the first coincidental meeting of their eyes.  In contrast, Jacob lifted up his eyes (Gen. 33:1) and saw Esau coming towards him, but not as a loving brother; and in fearful anxiety he split his family’s camp so that at least a part of them would have a chance of surviving.

The Sages, who surely noted the special nature of the expression “to look up and see,” interpreted the words, “After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes [va-tisa ... et eineha] upon Joseph” (Gen. 39:7), as proof of a vision and not plain bodily lust.   (Note: the Hebrew uses the same expression as has been discussed at length above, although this is lost in the new JPS translation.)  Clearly the words are not to be taken at face value, for Potiphar’s wife had a more elevated status than Joseph and did not have to look up to him. [9]   Nevertheless, only part of the code appears here, only “looking up” without “seeing”; therefore the Sages concluded that the vision seen by Potiphar’s wife was not precise (Genesis Rabbah 85.2; according to the interpretation that identifies Potiphar with Poti-phera, priest of On and father of Asenath):  “she (the wife of Potiphar) saw through her astrologers that she would have a son from Joseph; but she did not know whether it would actually be from her or from her daughter (Asenat)”.

Now back to the ram in the story of the binding of Isaac.  Viewing the expression, “he looked up and saw,” as a code opens several exegetical possibilities.   The ram might have been a perfectly usual ram, but Abraham may have seen mystically that there would be no fault in his sacrificing it; [10] or the ram may only have existed in Abraham’s vision; [11] or the ram may have been created especially for him specifically at that moment; [12] or the ram may have been created at the beginning of the universe specifically for the purpose of the binding of Isaac, as told in Tractate Avot 5.6: [13]

Ten things were created at twilight on the eve of the Sabbath, and these are they:  the mouth of the earth [that engulfed Korah and his associates], the mouth of the well [which supplied the Israelites with water in the wilderness], the mouth of [Balaam’s] ass, the rainbow, the manna, the staff [used by Moses], shamir [diamond, used by Solomon to hew the stones for the Temple without using an iron implement], the writing, and the writing tool, and the Tablets [the last three all associated with the miraculous character of the writing on the Tablets of the Covenant]; others say, also the destroying spirits, the sepulcher of Moses, and the ram of the patriarch Abraham.

I leave it to the reader to choose the interpretation that seems best to him or her.


[1] In Rashbam’s commentary, loc. sit., the interpretation of the word ahar is addressed:  ahar ne’ehaz be-karnav – that is to say, afterwards (aharei khen) he saw the ram as he was going by, caught in the thicket, and he thought to himself, this must be an angel on a mission from the Holy One, blessed be He, who has sent me this ram instead of my son; that is why it is caught in the thicket – so that I can take it and sacrifice it.”  But who gave Abraham leave to assume that this was the doing of an angel instead of viewing it as an accident that happened to a most unfortunate ram?

Midrash Ha-Gadol, Genesis 22:13.2 (70, 356) solves the question that it might have been robbery by assuming that the ram belonged to Abraham:  “It was the leader of Abraham’s flock, and it was named Isaac, but he did not recognize it.” 

[2] Thereby Abraham also received a hint that G-d desires animal, not human, sacrifice.

[3] Compare this with the rebuke that David gave Abner (I Sam. 26) for allowing a stranger to penetrate the guard around the king, thus endangering the king’s life.

[4] Several other examples where the simple past is used may be seen in Genesis 1:1, Exodus 19:1, and Joshua 5:2.

[5] For example, cf. Sachs, Aryeh, commentary on Genesis, Olam ha-Tanakh, who in the light of the Genesis Apocryphon Dead Sea Scroll points to Mount Hazor (near Bethel) as a summit from which one can see as far as Mount Hermon in one direction, and Ashdod in the other.

[6] Cf. Aharoni, Yohanan, Eretz Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mikra, Jerusalem 1963, p. 20.  He says that the stories of the patriarch reflect a point of view that takes Syria and the land of Israel to be a single unit, as also follows from the Egyptian names   that were given to the region in that period.

[7] Parallel indications in the Bible reinforce this interpretation:   “And he said, ‘Note well [sa na einekha] that all the he-goats which are mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, and mottled; for I have noted all that Laban has been doing to you’” (Gen. 31:12); “And He said to me, ‘O mortal, turn your eyes [sa na einekha] northward.’  I turned my eyes northward and there, north of the gate of the altar, was that infuriating image on the approach” (Ezek. 8:5); “Then the angel who talked with me came forward and said, ‘Now look up [sa na einekha] and note this other object that is approaching’” (Zech. 5:5).

[8] The Sages long since noted the flawed vision of the wicked, who think themselves clear-sighted (Tanhuma va-Yeshev 6):   “ ‘His master’s wife cast [her eyes]’ (Gen. 39:7) – with respect to such as this it is said, ‘May their eyes grow dim…’ (Ps. 69:24).  For we note that the righteous are uplifted by their eyes, as it is said, ‘Abraham looked up and saw the place’ (Gen. 22:4) … but the wicked fall by their eyes, as it is said, ‘Lot looked about him and saw … the whole plain of the Jordan’ (Gen. 13:10), namely Sodom, for he left Abraham and went to Sodom to join in their way of life; therefore he was called Lot, for his name brought him to it[Lot in Hebrew means ‘his eyes were covered’]; ‘Balak son of Zippor saw’… (Num. 22:2); likewise all instances [of seeing] can be resolved."

[9] Professor Shalom Paul ascribes erotic significance to the expression nesi’at einayim (casting one’s eyes) in the context of one gender to another, in light of the corresponding expression in Akkadian.   This is apparently why it appears in the story of Potiphar’s wife without the verb to see. This would also explain the JPS translation.

[10] For example, if the owners have despaired of finding what they have lost; see note 1 above.

[11] In the spirit of Maimonides’ interpretation of the appearance of the three men in Genesis 18; cf. Guide for the Perplexed II 42; II 45.

[12] In the spirit of Nahmanides’ interpretation of the appearance of the three men in Genesis 18.  See his commentary, loc. sit.  Along a similar line, Abarbanel interpreted the voice of the angel speaking with Abraham during the binding of Isaac as an actual voice that was created for that specific purpose.

[13] For more on interpretations by the Sages see: Y. A. Ephrati, Parashat ha-Akedah:  Ha-Mikra’ot u-Midreshei ha-Aggadah shel Haza”l ki-Peshutam, Petah Tikvah 1983.