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March 23, 2006

In the Blindspot-light
By Rabbi Steven J. Rubenstein

Each year I cringe when the postcard arrives in the mail reminding
me that my appointment with the optometrist is due. A couple of years
ago my eye doctor welcomed me to the club of those whose eyesight would
gradually diminish with age. I know from experience that reading the
fine print of the Talmud had become increasingly difficult with each
passing month, but I tried to ignore the fact that the letters of the
Torah were becoming a bit fuzzier around the crowns when I read from
the scroll on Shabbat.

How our ancestor Isaac would have benefited from a yearly eye check-up if it had been available to him! In this week’s portion Toldot, we are told, ‘Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see.’ To see what?

Right before this comment, the Torah tells us that both Isaac and
his wife Rebecca were disappointed when their son Esau married two
women from the ‘wrong’ tribe. It seems that the in-laws, the
Hittites, were not a very hospitable family. Although the Bible may be
relatively silent about this particular tribe, historical evidence
shows that the Hittites were known for their warrior ways and their
ferocity. Is this how Esau expresses his gratitude toward his father
and mother? It is no wonder the Torah proclaims that Esau’s
choice for daughter-in-laws was a source of ‘bitterness’ to his parents.

Yet Isaac was willing to overlook what his son had done to bring
such unhappiness into their home. Even though he would end up living
for several years to come, at this point in the narrative Isaac senses
that his loss of sight is a signal that death is near. So Isaac told
Esau bring him a parting meal so that he could bless him with his
rightful legacy.

In her latest book, Torah & Company, Judith Abrams pairs
a quote from the weekly portion with a corresponding one from the
Mishna and the Talmud. In this week’s reading, Rabbi Abrams has
called upon a story from Sifra Kedoshim to illuminate this verse regarding Isaac’s lack of vision. Sifra Kedoshim

is composed of passages that expound upon the meaning of various verses
found in the Book of Leviticus. It is here that we find another quote
regarding a person who is blind. The Bible tells us (Leviticus 19:14),
‘You shall not put a stumbling block in the path of the blind; you
shall fear God.’

From the ensuing discussion it is clear that the verse refers to the
blind spots that limit our vision, not only physically but also
mentally and emotionally. The Bible forbids us to purposely place
impediments in the path of others that may lead them to be harmed. The
same can be said for the stumbling blocks that we place in front of

What we see in this week’s portion is a different blind spot. It is
Isaac who has created the stumbling block that prevents him from seeing
what his actions may lead to by blessing the ‘wrong’ son. He is
intent on giving the family legacy to a son who blurs his vision to the
values and ideals of his own father, Abraham. According to one Midrash,
Isaac’s eyesight had become dim when Heavenly tears fell into his eyes,
relieving him of witnessing Abraham’s indiscretion when preparing to
sacrifice his son. When Isaac sends Esau to prepare a meal for his
blessing, we can only imagine how much Isaac’s vision has become
impaired by the difficulties of his life.

We all have our blind spots, places where we are temporarily blinded
by life’s circumstances. As individuals with roles in a greater
community, we often rely on others to point out the stumbling blocks
that line the paths of our individual journeys. How can we avoid them?
Once again, the sages have the solution: fearing God.

How is fearing God related to seeing? The Hebrew word for fear is yir’ah. Fearing God does not mean to ‘to be afraid of,’ but rather, ‘to be in awe of’ and is composed of the same letters as the Hebrew word for seeing, ra’ah. To be in awe of God requires the ability to see not only with the eyes but also with the heart and the soul. It is knowing on an intimate level that God is there even when the eyes cannot see Him.

What the Torah points out is that losing sight of God is what we
ought to fear most. Even though God can see into our hearts, a
stumbling block that prevents us from seeing in the opposite direction
is what may lead to greater trouble in our lives. Perhaps what we
need to work on most is finding ways to enhance our vision. Viewing the
world through the lens of God, reciting our prayers with a renewed
sense of connectedness, doing mitzvoth’all these are ways of clearing
the debris that can cause us to stumble as we fulfill our appointed
tasks in life.

May this week be one in which we are given the insight that is
necessary to bring blessings into this world. May the objects in
the mirrors of our lives’the obstacles’not appear larger than they
really are, preventing us from moving forward along our individual
paths, illuminated not only from above but also from within.