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Parashat Vayeira 5783

November 7, 2022

How Do you Make a Well or a Ram Disappear?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeira
By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

Twenty years ago, two experimental psychologists at Harvard, named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, created what has become one of the most famous experiments in the behavioral sciences. (Before you read further about this experiment, you may want to try this demonstration at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY – watch the brief video and follow the instructions, and then continue reading.)

The participants in this study were given a simple task. They just had to watch a brief video that included several people passing basketballs back and forth to each other. Three of these players were wearing white shirts, and three were wearing black shirts. The task was simple: watch the ball that was being passed among the players with the white shirts, and count how many times the basketball was passed. This is not difficult – most people came up with the right number.

But then, the participants were asked: did you notice anything unusual about this video? A majority of participants said, no, not particularly. But, when they were shown the video a second time, they would see that right in the middle of this basketball game strolls a person wearing a gorilla costume. He walks to the center of the court, beats his chest a couple of times, and walks away. More than 50% of the participants in the study had absolutely no idea, which is why this experiment became known as the “invisible gorilla” experiment. You couldn’t imagine that you could be oblivious to something as unusual as a person in a gorilla costume. But the participants were so focused on the task at hand, that it crowded out all other information. They saw only what they expected to see.

The psychologists referred to this phenomenon as “inattentional blindness.” So many participants were blind to the gorilla because they simply were focusing on other things, and they were oblivious to anything they did not expect to see.

The Torah portion of Vayeira includes at least two episodes that can be read through the lens of inattentional blindness. First, in one of the many disturbing parts of our Torah portion, Abraham has sent his handmaid Hagar and their son Ishmael into the desert. For whatever the reason, they are given insufficient water, and the water runs out. Hagar fears that her son Ishmael is going to die of thirst. But at the last possible moment, an angel of God calls out to Hagar, and tells her that God has heard the cries of the child, and they will be saved. The mechanism by which they are saved, however, is that the Torah tells us, ויפקח אלקים את עיניה ותרא באר מים – “God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Gen. 21:19). The implication is that the well was there all along, but for some reason Hagar was unable to see it.

The provocative comment of Rabbi Binyamin on this verse is recorded in the ancient Midrashic collection Bereishit Rabbah (53:14): אָמַר רַבִּי בִּנְיָמִין הַכֹּל בְּחֶזְקַת סוּמִין עַד שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מֵאִיר אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם, מִן הָכָא וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹקים אֶת עֵינֶיהָ. “All people are considered to be without sight until God opens their eyes, as it is written, “God opened Hagar’s eyes.” (Genesis Rabbah 53:14)

A second example of inattentional blindness comes at the conclusion of the Torah portion, in the account of the Binding of Isaac. Immediately after an angel of God has instructed Abraham not to slaughter his son, we read, וישא אברהם את עיניו – “Abraham lifts up his eyes,” וירא והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו – “and he saw – here was a ram, caught in the thicket by its thorns” (Gen. 22:13).

The contemporary rabbinic leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, notes something absurd about this episode. Rams are not small animals. The idea that there could be a ram caught in the bushes in close proximity to Abraham, and that Abraham would not have noticed until he lifted his eyes, is bizarre and improbable.

Both Hagar and Abraham are oblivious to phenomena in the world that we would expect they would have noticed. To some degree, this may be because we are unlikely ever to see that which we don’t expect to see.  After Hagar endures one defeat after another, perhaps she assumes that she will never succeed – she stops being able to even recognize what success looks like when it encounters her. Hagar may have been so despondent that she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face, even though it was what she was yearning for more than anything else, because her despair clouded her perception. And Abraham, full of single-minded zeal to carry out what he believed was God’s command, was similarly oblivious to his environment until he lifted up his eyes.

Whether at moments of despair, or at moments of single-minded focus and commitment, it’s good for us to remember that we are susceptible to inattention. When Hagar allowed God to open her eyes, she was able to pull back from her bleak assessment of her situation. When Abraham lifted his eyes, he was able to pull back from his horrific impression that what God most wanted was the slaughter of his son. Parashat Vayeira can remind us that our environment often includes blessings and solutions that are in reach, as long as we commit ourselves to noticing them.

With thanks to Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who first suggested the relationship between the Invisible Gorilla experiment and this Torah portion.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.