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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Speaking is Believing

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on November 22, 2016)
Topics: Chayei Sarah, Sefer Breishit, Torah

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After the climactic event of the akeida, the Torah turns its attention to more quotidian matters: the death and burial of Sarah and the finding of a wife for Yitzchak.  In this shift, a number of the major characters move off the scene.  Not only Sarah and Avraham, but God as well.  In our parasha, God is neither seen nor heard; God is only spoken about.

This shift in God’s role is intimately connected to the passing of the baton from Avraham to Yitzchak. Avraham is a visionary, a charismatic leader to whom God has directly spoken.  People are drawn to his passion and his person, feeling that they can connect to God just by being in proximity of Avraham.  But not everyone can be nor should be an Avraham.  For the vision to live on and continue to the next generation, what is needed is a successor who can sustain the vision without the immediacy of God’s presence. One must move from charisma to forms and rituals that can communicate and embody the faith.  If this can be achieved then the belief can survive and be passed forward.

Avraham heard God’s voice throughout his life; but after the akeida, it is seeing that takes central stage: “And Avraham called the name of that place, God Sees, as it is said to this day, on the mount God will be seen” (Breishit 22:14).   In future generations, the Torah is telling us, God may not always be heard, but if we try hard enough, then “even to this day” God can be seen.

The theme of seeing God and seeing as God goes back to the story of creation.  God sees that the world is good.  Adam and Eve fail to see as God would; they see the tree as “good for eating,” and not as forbidden and off-limits.  The later generations continue to see the world through their lens of self-interest, seeing, coveting and taking whatever they want. As a result, God sees that the world that was good has become bad, and it must be destroyed so it can start over.

The message is clear – God sees what is good and we must learn to see the world through God’s eyes.  Avraham is chosen and given this task.  He is told not to go to the land of Canaan, but to go to the land which God will show him; he must learn to see the place that God has chosen.  Avraham’s story ends with God telling him to take his son, to perform the akeida on “one of the mountains that I will show you,” to again strive to see where God is directing him.  It is thus at the critical moment that he sees what it is God truly wants from him; he sees the ram and offers it instead of his son.

An essential part of seeing the world through God’s eyes is seeing God in the world.  This is a choice that we make. We choose how we interpret the events in our lives; are they chance events brought about by an arbitrary cosmos, or are they acts of divine providence, in which God’s presence can be seen and felt?  The culmination of Avraham’s story is his declaration, his hope, that God will always be seen, “that is should be said until this day, on the mount God will be seen’.”

How is this accomplished?  Most essentially, by how we speak – “that it should be said until this day”.  How we narrate and interpret the events of our life becomes the lens through which we see the world.  Avraham called out in the name of God everywhere he went. By invoking God constantly, Avraham changed people’s perception of reality.  People began to see a world in which God shapes all events.  The famous rabbinic story of Avraham drives home this point:

Reish Lakish said, “Read not, ‘he called’ [in the name of God] but ‘and he made to call’.”  This teaches that our father Abraham caused the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, “Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe. Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being.” (Sotah 10b)

It is not the intellectual belief – that God provides – which was the most important, but the discourse that Avraham created.  By talking about thanking God for the fruit, by encouraging others to “thank, praise, and bless,” that is, to talk about this as well, Avraham shaped the way others saw the world.   Such talk becomes habitual, it spreads and impacts others, whether they are aware of it or not.  “God is with you in all that you do,” Avimelekh says to Avrahm (Breishit 21:22).  By talking about God, Avraham has made Avimelekh see God; Avraham has brought God into the world.   As Rashi (24:7), puts it: “[Avraham says to his servant:] ‘God, Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.’  [This is to say, while in the past God was only Lord of the Heavens,] now God is also Lord of the Earth, for I have made God’s name commonplace in the mouth of all”.

This talking about God which leads to seeing God, is the blessing that Avraham passes on to his servant, to Yitzchak, and to the next generation. The God who has taken me from my father’s house, says Avraham to his servant, will also be with you to ensure the success of your mission.   This will become a reality if you see it as such.  The servant has learned this lesson well; he prays and the right woman appears.  A skeptic might say that this is luck but the servant knows it is God answering his prayers.  When the servant acknowledges God’s hand in the meeting of Rivka, he makes it a reality:  “And he said: ‘Blessed is God the Lord of my master Avraham… as for me, God has guided me to the house of my master’s brother” (24:27).

These events could be understood in a radically different way if seen through different eyes.  The Gemara (Hullin 95b) makes a shocking statement: “Rav… said: Any omen (nachash) which is not like that of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant… is not considered [the Biblically prohibited act of] divination.”  Rishonim grapple to explain why, if this were the case, it was acceptable for Avraham’s servant to perform his test; did he commit the sin of divination? (see, for example, Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:4, and Ra’avad and Kesef Mishne ad. loc.; Radak on Shmuel I, ch. 14; Gur Aryeh Breishit 24:14).   The answer is that it all depends on the framing.  Were the servant to have interpreted the sign as magical, it would have been nichush – something which happened “merely by chance, and not through God’s providence.” (Sefer HaHinukh, mitzvah 249).  But by praying, the servant saw what transpired as an answer to his prayers; he saw in the events not chance or magic, but God.

In the servant’s long retelling of his encounter with Rivka, we hear how, through the eyes and in the words of the servant, God is ever-present.  “And God blessed my master…”, “God will…make your path successful”, “And I said, ‘God…[she] will be the one that God has chosen for my master’s son”, “And I blessed God… who led me down the true path to take the daughter of my master’s brother for his son.”   And it is this discourse that is then consciously or unconsciously adopted by his listeners: “And Lavan and Betuel said, “From God the matter has come, we cannot speak to you bad or good” (24:50).

Avraham passed on this gift of talking to and about God not only to his servant, but also to his son.  It is thus that we find as the servant is returning that Yitzchak had gone “to speak in the field in the evening time.”  The Rabbis tell us that this was speaking to God, but it is just as likely that he was speaking to himself about God (some translate the verb as “mediate” rather than “speak.”),  Indeed the two are one.  It is our speaking about God, making God part of our regular discourse, that enables us to speak to God and to encounter God in the world.

We live in a world in which God does not speak to us directly.  Despite this, we can in fact choose whether or not to see.  Avraham’s faith is sustained through learning to see, and how we see is first and foremost shaped by how we talk.  Speaking is seeing, and seeing is believing.  Indeed, “more beautiful is the conversation of the servants of the fathers, than the Torah of the sons.” (Breishit Rabbah 60).   It is through such conversation, such daily discourse, that our world is shaped and that God is seen.