By Yochanan Gordon
As a child who was an avid follower of sports and spent a lot of time playing various sports games, especially baseball, I always wondered what it would be like to see the ball with 20/20, or even 20/10, vision. As anyone who is into sports knows, much of one’s ability to perform is based on his or her visual acuity while playing. However, I started wearing eyeglasses in second grade, at just eight years old, which compelled me to wonder at that young age what it would be like to perceive the ball at a greater distance and to be able to react with greater efficiency.
There are a number of reasons that have led me to recall this memory now. Though I’ve been married for a decade and a half now and I’m blessed with five beautiful children, for a while I was the only member of the family who needed the aid of eyeglasses to achieve unimpaired eyesight. My wife is still in denial about the fact that she developed a need for eyeglasses, and only wears them while driving at night. She is otherwise content not being able to discern the faces of the people waving to her as they pass her in the street. Lately, however, our oldest son, Nison, who started ninth grade at MAY at the beginning of this school year, has been complaining of difficulty seeing the board from his desk in school. Considering that I needed the aid of eyeglasses at such a young age, I did wonder why none of my children needed the same. Now I wonder how long he hasn’t been able to see the board and neglected telling us about it. Anyhow, as I type these words, he has an appointment at the optometrist, and I am anticipating welcoming him into the four-eyes club of the family.
There are additional connotations of good eyesight that have little to do with being able to read or see clearly without the aid of eyeglasses, contact lenses, or Lasik surgery. In fact, all faculties of human function possess an outward expression and an internal one, corresponding to the body and the soul. For example, because people are inherently unique and see things from their own vantage point, we can show two people the same picture and they will perceive two very different aspects of the same picture. There are naturally critical people who are always looking at people and situations from a negative slant and, conversely, there are others who are always seeking the silver lining in situations and a redeeming quality in all people. All of these are situations pertaining to the internal sight within people.
To this end, I came across a teaching from the fourth Alexander Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Mendel Danziger, author of the Sefer Akeidas Yitzchak, who was tragically murdered together with the rest of his family in the Holocaust. The Alexander Rebbe connects the end of the Torah with the beginning by way of a novel interpretation of the first Rashi, which seeks to understand why the Torah opened with the story of Creation and not the first mitzvah of the new moon.
Just to recap: Rashi notes that as a defense to the nations who allege that we stole the land of Israel, we should counter that G-d created the world and he took Eretz Yisrael out of their hands and gave it to us. However, Rashi uses an interesting term when he says that G-d gave Eretz Yisrael l’asher yashar b’einav, to he who is straight of vision. Because of this, the Rebbe points out that the only time the Torah mentions Eretz Yisrael it says: “Einei Hashem Elokecha bah mei’reishis ha’shanah v’ad acharis shanah—The eyes of Hashem are upon it from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.” It was obviously significant to the Rebbe that Eretz Yisrael is associated with pure eyesight: G-d giving it to he who possesses straight vision, and again the eyes of G-d which are upon it throughout the year.
Following this line of thought the Alexander Rebbe brings us to the close of the Torah, which concludes with the words: “Asher asah Moshe l’einei kol Yisrael.” Rashi explains that this is a reference to the shattering of the luchos. However, from the perspective of plain sight it would seem that this seems to reference an improvement that Moshe, as the leader of the Jewish people, effected in the collective eyesight of the people. As such, he explains based on the thesis up until this point that although Moshe himself didn’t make it into the land of Israel, as the selfless leader that he was, he embraced his role of improving the sight of the people to the point that they were able to be brought into the land with Yehoshua at their lead. The Torah is telling us that Moshe, right before his demise, succeeded in fixing (“asah,” meaning to complete, fix, or perfect) the eyesight of the Jewish people on the level required for them to enter into the land of Israel.
This leads seamlessly into an analysis between the personas of Noach and Avraham, which I learned at a shiur over Shabbos given by Rabbi Yossi Zakutinsky at Khal Mevakshei Hashem. Noach is rooted in the clarity of Talmud Yerushalmi while Avraham was rooted in the ambivalence of Talmud Bavli. Chazal states that people with a Yerushalmi disposition have an advantage over those who hail from Bavel. However, even greater than someone possessing a Yerushalmi disposition is someone from Bavel who graduated to Yerushalayim. It is in light of this that there were people who were critical of Noach’s righteousness, comparing him to the generation of Avraham, who was rooted in Bavel but ultimately made it to Eretz Yisrael.
The difference between Yerushalmi thinking and that of Babylonia is that the style of Yerushalmi is clear and concise whereas the Babylonian Talmud only reaches conclusions after a set of rigorous questions, answers, proofs, refutations, and ultimate conclusions, which seems like an excursion through darkness to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Where the Jerusalem Talmud represents a top-down light that gives us a clear view of everything in the room, the Babylonian Talmud is an attempt to find our way through the room within darkness.
If we connect these ideas to the various levels of prophecy—namely, prophecy and what Chazal refer to as a bas kol, prophecy is communication from G-d directly to the prophet whereas a bas kol, which, translated, might be something similar to an echo, is characterized as such because it is not as direct and is less clear than prophecy. Relating this to the broader topic at hand, vision, a prophet is referred to as a “chozeh,” which is a visionary.
The question we then need to ask ourselves is if there is an advantage to being a prophet over someone who receives communications on the level of bas kol. Is it preferred to be able to see things in a lit environment than it is to be able to find one’s way in darkness? Certainly, we all prefer light as opposed to darkness since it carries a much more welcoming connotation than darkness does. However, while someone can certainly have a good and clear reading of a space that is illuminated by light, the person who can exert himself in figuring out the floorplan amidst darkness might have a better view in the sense that there is no circumstance in which he couldn’t find his way through that space.
The main point I am driving at is that while we are enamored by the notion of prophecy, the truth is that if we treated the occurrences of our lives as communications by G-d, regardless of the questions or ambiguity that shrouds them, we may be in a position to see G-d on a level more clearly than even a prophet could.
This leads me to a general misunderstanding regarding the nature of questions and the distance that exists between the question and the answer to it. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would receive a lot of letters containing many questions. The manner in which the Rebbe replied to these questions was often not to record the answer under or on the margins of the question, but rather to circle or underline the words within the question that contained the answer.
It is a fascinating concept if we lend it some thought. The questions posed in many of these letters were of a serious nature, compelling enough that the questioners sought from the Rebbe an answer that, try as they might, continued to elude them. However, the Rebbe saw the answers to those vexing questions within the darkness and the ambivalence that caused the question in the first place.
Then I remembered a verse in Shmuel, which states that G-d does not see similar to Man. Man sees that which is visible, but G-d sees what is in the heart. The word for heart in that verse, “leivav” spells “Bavel” backwards. That is to say that the images that emerge through the excursions through darkness are themselves a form of prophecy that comes through questions and riddles rather than the clarity of a prophet.
This was the basis of the criticism against Noach as cited in Rashi in comparison to the generation of Avraham. Noach, who was disposed to the clarity of the Jerusalem Talmud, stood no chance in the generation of Avraham, who was characterized as a Babylonian who was predisposed to darkness. For us, it gives us empowerment and the hope in viewing the goings-on in our life with greater attentiveness, trying to find our way within the darkness until the light emerges just ahead, at the end of the tunnel.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.