Parashat Vayera – Seeing God

By Laurie Levy

The verb reish-aleph-hey occurs three times in the first two verses of this week’s parashah. I think this points to a lesson about what it means to see – really see.

Last week we ended with Abraham circumcising himself and his household and so this week, when we read that Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent, we infer that he is recuperating from his recent surgery. Sitting there midday, God appears to him: “He lifted his eyes and, behold, he saw three men standing near him.” (Gen. 18:2) How is it that these strangers (who we later come to realize are angels of God)appear to him so suddenly in the middle of the desert?

The S’fat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic master, answers this question with a verse from Job, who, despite all the suffering he was experiencing in his body and on his skin, says: “In my flesh I see God.” (19:26) Abraham could have easily expressed the same sentiment. He could have said, “After I performed the brit milah on myself, once I made this mark on my flesh, I was able to see God.”

In the Bible, the root letters `ayin-reish-lamed give us some interesting words: Orlah means foreskin or that which is not circumcised. It can also mean a gentile. When God tells Moses to go and talk to Pharaoh, Moses is hesitant because he is `aral s’fatayim, of impeded speech, literally “uncircumcised lips.” (Ex 6:12) When the prophet Jeremiah complains that the people are not heeding his word, he says `ar’lah oz’nam, “their ears are uncircumcised.” (6:10) The implication in each case is an impediment or blockage.

There is a beautiful kabalistic teaching that says God created the world with a klippah, a husk or veil, over His presence. Our job is to find ways to remove the klippah and then God’s presence will be revealed in our lives. The idea is that by doing mitzvot, by living exemplary lives and following the Torah, we will see God in the world.

This is the meaning of the brit, the covenant that we have with God. It is a promise, even more, a commitment, to be in an active relationship with God. It is the essence of Judaism. God created the world, created us, and gave us the Torah with the understanding that if we live according to God’s commandments, then God will be in this covenantal relationship with us and take care of us and be our God. And the physical sign of that covenant is the circumcision that we are commanded to perform on every male on his eighth day of life. This circumcision becomes the first step toward removing the klippah, the covering that veils God’s presence. The rest has to be a conscious and active commitment on our part to do what is expected of us and live meaningful lives.

I think this is the point in the beginning of the parashah. Abraham, having just been circumcised, can now really see God and God’s role in his life. An impediment was removed and behold! There is something in front him that he hadn’t seen before. And despite any post-op pain, the first thing Abraham does is run to greet the strangers and offer them hospitality, a beautiful act of g’milut hesed, lovingkindness.

Life is a constant search for meaning and connection – to one another and to God. It is a continual process of circumcising and re-circumcising our hearts and souls to be open to new possibilities to find ways to learn, to pray and to do acts of lovingkindness. Surely we cannot love with an uncircumcised heart. And if we cannot love one another, we certainly cannot love God. We are challenged to find ways to remove the klippot, the spiritual impediments in our lives. Each act we do towards repairing the world is a step in that direction. Each is an opportunity to bring us closer to God and to perhaps reveal something that we hadn’t seen before. Maybe it was right there in front of us, like the wayfaring strangers. But if we don’t pay attention to it, if we don’t stop and look around to see,we may never know that the strangers before us are angels, as they were for Sarah and Abraham. Surely, this can only serve to begin removing the klippot and revealing God’s presence in our lives and in the world.


Laurie Levy is a rabbinical student at AJR.