Seeing Angels in Genesis: Commentary on Parashat Chayyey Sarah 5783
By Rabbi Dr. Rivkah Glick, Hebrew Seminary alum, ordained 2019; Educator, Orot
These past few years, I have immersed myself in the weekly Torah portion, trying to “occupy Torah,” live within the Torah, as I look at it with fresh eyes, “to see” (lir’ot, לִרְאוֹת) what presents itself to me, something new, different, or something old from the past speaking to me again. I thought about the verbal root of ra’ah (רָאָה, with the root ר-א-ה, resh-alef-heh). Ra’ah means “saw,” but the root of this verb, when used in the word vayyera (וַיֵּרָא), means “appeared.” Ra’ah has taken on a special meaning for me because, since retinal eye surgery, I now experience the world with decreased physical vision.
Throughout the Torah, but especially in Genesis, we have people who see angels and to whom G-d or a Divine Being, an angel, or a messenger of G-d appears. I want to suggest that this is not just the physical act of seeing. It is a much deeper type of vision. To truly see is a mindfulness act, of being present, of being aware that you are in the Divine Presence.
You have to stop and pay attention.
Just as we talk about mindful and deep listening and compassionate listening, I am suggesting that what is occurring in Genesis is deep looking, deep seeing, associated with a change in consciousness. It’s about how we see—an awareness that we are in the Divine Presence.
Recently I talked with one of my Jewish Buddhist teachers, Norman Fischer, about not being able to find the Divine, not really feeling It. He said, “Maybe the Divine is not a what, but a how.” My life changed. I’ve come to understand this to mean: it’s about how we see the world, how we see others, how we act in the world, with compassion, kindness, generosity and gratitude. As we open our hearts, through prayer, meditation, tzedakah, we develop a wise heart. As Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg has taught, a wise heart leads to wise action. In the words of Emmanuel Levinas, “To know G-d is to know what to do.” We are supposed to take care of the other.
Indeed, most of our ancestors saw G-d or angels in the Torah: Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. First was Abraham in the parashah of Lekh Lekha. G-d appeared to Abraham, and the covenant began. In Vayyeira, G-d appears to Abraham as he is sitting at his tent, recovering from his circumcision. And as they are talking, Abraham “lifts up his eyes” and three men (angels) appear, and he actually leaves G-d to offer hospitality to his guests! This is the origin of the mitzvot of visiting the sick and hospitality to guests.
Next was Hagar, Sarah’s servant. The first time she runs away to the desert, an angel speaks to her. Hagar then calls G-d, who speaks before her the name “You Are The G-d Of Vision”—the God who sees affliction. She returns and gives birth to Ishmael. Later, Hagar is expelled again to the desert with her son and is sobbing, about to die. An angel comforts her. G-d “opens her eyes,” and she sees a well. Her life and her son’s life are changed. But was that well always there?
In the beginning of the book of Exodus, Pharaoh’s daughter sees a basket—the תֵּבָה (tevah, the “ark,”) the little sanctuary in which Moses was placed. The only other place in the Torah where this word tevah is used is in the story of Noah’s tevah—that is, Noah’s Ark. Perhaps today, our tevah is our own protective inner sanctuary in our hearts. And of course, later in Exodus, an angel appears to Moses in a blaze of fire, the burning bush, and Moses thinks, “I will turn aside to see this thing.” G-d calls out to him, “Moses, Moses;” and Moses replies, “הִנֵּֽנִי” (hinneni, “I am Here”). Thus begins the tale of the Exodus and Moses’s unique relationship with the Divine.
But first—back to Genesis and Abraham:
Interestingly, a different type of seeing occurs in this week’s parashah, Chayyey Sarah (חַיֵּי שָֹרָה, “The Life of Sarah”)—which begins with her death. In order to understand this, we have to look at what immediately preceded this event: the עֲקֵידָה (Akedah, the “binding”), the sacrifice or near-sacrifice of Sarah’s son Isaac by her husband Abraham. So much has been said by so many, including all the commentators, and all of us—and books, poems, and plays have all been written—on the meaning of the Akedah, of being asked by G-d to sacrifice a child. All I have to say though here is that an angel provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son. Abraham looks up and “sees” the ram. Was it always there? Did Abraham have a change in consciousness that changed how he saw the world?
In the past, I always figured: G-d put Abraham to the test. And he failed. More recently however, I have taken a more compassionate approach, maybe, with the understanding that G-d is trying to tell us that we are going to be different from the surrounding peoples and religions, who sacrifice their children: We are not going to kill our children for the sake of religion. I could live with this interpretation.
Rashi, quoting a midrash, cannot fathom that G-d would ask such a thing and depicts God telling Abraham, “I told you to bring him up—not kill him. Now take him down!” A separate midrash identifies the satan (שָֹטָן, the “prosecutor” in God’s celestial court) as the root of the evil in Abraham’s actions; according to the same midrash, the satan tells Sarah of what Abraham did, and the pain of this news leads to her death in Chayyey Sarah.
I recently learned a beautiful midrash from Rabbi Avi Weiss, Founding President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an open Orthodox rabbinical school in New York—a progressive, even activist place. Imagine Abraham, the first man who argued with G-d, and bartered extensively with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorrah, for the sake of ten righteous people. And, just a little later, when asked to take his son and sacrifice him: not a word from Abraham. Abraham was on the mountain with Isaac for three days. The midrash says that, during this time, he suffered greatly, emotionally, and internally. He meets a zaqen (זָקֵן, an “old man”)—in effect, an angel, an ish (אִישׁ, “an angel”)—who asks: “Where are you going?” Abraham answers: “to pray.” The zaqen questions why he has wood, a knife and rope to just pray. The zaqen says: “Wasn’t I with you when G-d told you Lekh Lekha? And through everything else?” Abraham’s conscience is the zaqen, an angel, a messenger of G-d.
This midrash further theorizes that the angel who appears when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac has come as a result of Abraham’s struggle with Abraham’s own conscience. The midrash thus suggests that the angel who appears is Abraham’s own conscience, telling Abraham to do what is right, not to kill his son. Instead, Abraham chooses life. That’s what we are supposed to do! We must spiritually see what is the right thing to do.
The Torah never again reports G-d talking to Abraham, nor does it ever again report Abraham appearing with Isaac, or even Sarah appearing with Isaac. In indirect relationship with his wife and his nearly-sacrificed son, Abraham secures in this week’s parashah, Chayyey Sarah, both a burial spot for Sarah and a wife for Isaac. It is in this parashah when Isaac goes out to the field to meditate—to “converse”—in the late afternoon. When Isaac looks up and sees the camels coming (with Rebekah), she looks up and sees Isaac. She falls off her camel, as if swooning. They fall in love. This is one of the first true love affairs described in the Torah. Isaac takes her to his mother’s tent as his wife, and he is comforted after the death of his mother. In the words of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables:
To love another person
Is to see the face of G-d.
To paraphrase Psalm 27:1, the light of G-d is love. Indeed, twice the value of the Hebrew word or (אוֹר, “light”) in gematriyyah (assigning numerical worth to Hebrew letters based on their position in the alphabet) is equal to ve’ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ, the command “you shall love”).
I credit the following thoughts to my teacher Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell—for his inspiring thoughts on mindful remembrance, lizkor (לִזְכּוֹר, “to remember”). Nahum Sarna wrote that the Hebrew stem z–k–r (ז-כ-ר) “connotes much more than the recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention.” Reflecting on ur’item (וּרְאִיתֶם, “you shall see”), uzkhartem (וּזְכַרְתֶּם, “you shall remember”), and va’asitem (וַעֲשִֺיתֶם, “you shall do”)—the three commands in Numbers 15:39, a primary verse in teaching about the practice of wearing tzitzit—the rabbinic sages of old taught “looking leads to awareness, and awareness to doing” (“ראיה מביאה לידי זכירה זכירה מביאה לידי עשיה”).
This is the Jewish way—right there in the third paragraph of the Shema: the ultimate mindfulness, deep looking and deep seeing. When we read this passage and hold the four corners of our tallit in our hands and look at the tzitzit in our hands, we can concentrate on the words: ur’item, uzkhartem, and va’asitem. We can ‘see’ them (tzitzit), remember them (words of torah and mitzvot), and do them (compassionate and just actions in the world). But before lizkor, mindful remembrance, I put forth this idea of mindful looking; this is deep looking, deep seeing, lir’ot. We must first focus our minds and hearts. I call this ‘compassionate seeing.’
A personal illustration: On the wall of the den of our family beach house in Union Pier, Michigan, there are many pictures of our extended family that have been taken each year, for over 25 years. Sometimes I walk by them and say, “Nice pictures.” But sometimes I stop and sit back and look at just one of the pictures and really see all the people. Ur’item. and then I remember them, and I am flooded with memories of their activities, their words, their foods, and their love. Some are here; some are gone. Uzkhartem. Maybe after this time-travel experience, I’m a bit kinder and more compassionate and grateful with my own family. Va’asitem. This kind of seeing is Proustian, only linking the visual sense, instead of smell, with memory. In Judaism, seeing leads to awareness, and awareness to doing. Thus, we all should try a moment of deep seeing in our own lives.
Really look at something we routinely walk by. Or take a walk with a 3-year-old, and see the whole world as something new and amazing—and realize that you are indeed before the Divine Presence. Always.
To me, spirituality simply means connection to the Divine, to others, to ourselves—to come together as One, one nation, one community, one universe, one Being, one relationship, with the Divine, Echad (אֶחָד, “One”). You might say, I have found the mathematical answer to G-d, the unifying field theorem of the Universe: 1 + 1 = 1! So, I ask: How do we see? Do we see that we are all one organism interconnected, interbeing? How do we see the world, the stranger, the homeless, the pandemic? Can we see the “other” as ourselves, made in the image of G-d? Can we love and care for the stranger? As we encounter the stranger, the “other,” can we imagine the report of Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:4?
.אִיקוֹנְיָא מְהַלֶּכֶת לִפְנֵי הָאָדָם וְהַכָּרוֹזוֹת כּוֹרְזִין לְפָנָיו… הֵן אוֹמְרִים, תְּנוּ מָקוֹם לָאִיקוּנִין שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא
A procession of angels passes before each person and heralds before them saying: make way for the image of G-d.
Sylvia Boorstein has asked: If life is so short, and we truly see the other as the image of G-d, how could we be anything other than kind? My teacher Norman Fischer has stated that it is so important that we train in compassion; the survival of the world depends on how we treat each other (and I add: and the earth). We can start with the ‘metta meditation’ phrases of lovingkindness taught in both Buddhist and Jewish meditation circles:
May all beings be safe, healthy, happy, and peaceful, and live with ease.
Right heart leads to right action. In my present way of experiencing the Divine, I seek not a “what” but a how: how to live a holy life. Right heart. Right action. To paraphrase and to broaden Levinas just a bit: To know G-d is to know what to do—with kindness, compassion, generosity and gratitude to self and to others.
 Emmanuel Levinas, “A Religion for Adults,” in Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism (translated from French to English by Seán Hand) (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 11–23, esp. p. 17.
 Genesis 12:1.
 Genesis 18:1–7.
 Genesis 16:7–14.
 Genesis 21:15–19.
 Exodus 2:5–6.
 Exodus 3:2–4.
 Genesis 23:1–2.
 Genesis 22:1–9.
 Rashi on Genesis 22:2, s.v. “והעלהו” (“and bring him up”), referencing Bereshit Rabbah 56:8.
 Midrash Tanchuma, Vayyera 23.
 Genesis 24:63–64. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 26b, this is the source of the afternoon Minchah service. The morning service, Shacharit, is credited to when Abraham gets up early in the morning to talk with G-d about Sodom (Genesis 19:27), and Arvit, the evening service—a time of the mixing of night and light—is attributed to when Jacob vayyifga bammakom (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם, “encountered ‘in the place’”) at nighttime (Genesis 28:11). Thus, our three daily services are attributed to the personal interactions of the avot (אָבוֹת, our patriarchal ‘ancestors’) with the Divine, and also to the fixed communal daily sacrifices in the ancient Temple (Mishnah, Berakhot 4:1).
 Genesis 24:63–67.
 Alain Boubil, John Caird, James Fenton, Herbert Kretzmer, Jean-Marc Natel, Trevor Nunn, and Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Misérables, “Epilogue” (1985).
 Or (אוֹר) is calculated as 1 + 6 + 200 = 207. Ve’ahavta (וְאָהַבְתָּ) is calculated as 6 + 1 + 5 + 2 + 400 = 414.
 Nahum Sarna (ed.), The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), p. 13.
 Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 43b. Italics added.
 Cf. Marcel Proust, Remembrances of Things Past (as per the title of the first English translations of the French original À la recherche du temps perdu), originally published in France as seven volumes gradually printed between 1913 and 1927.
 Cf. Thich Nhat Hanh, Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (4th edition; translated into English by Sister Annabel Laity) (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2020).