In 2009, after eight years of studying Talmud, Jewish law, and other classical sources, I was ordained as a clergy person. This caused some controversy in the Jewish community, and though it may seem naive to say, it is a reaction I did not fully expect. After all, I had already served as a spiritual leader at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale for six years, and my role was not going to change significantly: I would continue to officiate at various life-cycle events, teach classes, give sermons, and serve as a halakhic (Jewish legal) and spiritual advisor.
So I was shocked when I received an angry call from one of my detractors. I picked up the phone and the person on the other end of the line gruffly said, "You are causing the destruction of the Orthodox community," before slamming the phone down.
At that moment, I wanted to take it all back and crawl into a hole. I had never intended to set off a firestorm. I simply had a dream of serving the Jewish community as a rabbi. But in hearing this harsh criticism, I simply wanted close my eyes and shield myself.
Closing one's eyes and shutting out the pain and ugliness we all experience is a reasonable reaction.
However, the narratives in this week's portion of Vayera implore us to fight this temptation and to keep our eyes open, even when things seem most bleak. In fact, the words r-a-h, "to see," and r-ch-k, "from afar" both recur throughout the reading. R-a-ah represents the need to open our eyes and see what is immediately before us. Rachak represents the need to be able to look into the distance and dream of better possibilities.
Early in the portion, we read about Hagar, Abraham and Sarah's handmaiden, who is banished into the wilderness with her son Ishmael. She is so overcome with thirst and fear that she cannot bear to look at Ishmael. The Torah states (21:16), "And she went and sat down at a distance (harchayk) [from the boy]... For she thought, 'Let me not look on (ereh) as the child dies.'" Hagar could not see that Ishmael would be saved; God had to open her eyes so that she could see the well that was there all along (see Nahmanides' comment on 21:19). And Hagar certainly could not imagine that her son would actually grow to become the leader of a great and mighty nation (21:18).
Later in the parashah (portion) we read the well-known story of "The Binding of Isaac." As with Hagar, Abraham struggles to see in the midst of this painful trial. In Genesis 22:4 we read, "On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes (vayar), and saw the place from afar (merachok)." Notice that the same two words from the first story are used again here: vayar, "he saw," and merachok, "from afar." Although the verse implies that he sees something, it remains at a distance. In commenting on this verse, one sage in Genesis Rabbah (56:1) explains that what Abraham sees is "a cloud enveloping a mountain."
Abraham's vision is clouded. He cannot perceive Ha'Makom, "The Place" -- the Divine -- at this moment in time. As Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son to God, he cannot see how Isaac will survive, let alone dream that his son will one day bring forth Jacob and through him the entire people of Israel. In this dark moment, Abraham sees no reason for hope, now or in the future.
But suddenly the darkness clears. Just as Abraham is about to lower the knife over Isaac's throat an angel stays his hand. "Vayisah," Abraham "lifted up" his eyes, Vayar, "and he saw." The verse continues, "... [that] there was a ram in the thicket... (Genesis 22:16)."
Abraham now sees clearly that God -- Ha'Makom -- did not want him to sacrifice Isaac. The ram's horn, the shofar, becomes a powerful reminder to open our eyes to that which is right in front of us, and to lift them up to dream.
In reading these two dramatic narratives, we are challenged to keep our eyes open, to carefully consider what might be possible in the present and to maintain hope in the future. This does not mean that we deny our pain and suffering, but that we also do not let life's challenges blind us to the possibility of transformation today or in the days, months, or years ahead.
In my own journey to the rabbinate -- which was often a struggle -- I tried to keep this teaching in mind. When I received that painful phone call in 2009, I was tempted to close my eyes and hide away. But with the support of family, friends, and mentors, I managed to see what was clear to me in the moment: Orthodox women have the capacity to inspire, teach and lead the Jewish people, and parts of my community were ready to embrace this truth. At the same time, I continued to hold fast to the dream that many more Orthodox women could be ordained in the future. And so, with the help of Rabbi Avi Weiss, we opened Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual and halakhic leaders. This past June, three women graduated, and are now serving the Jewish community in Orthodox synagogues.
This week's Torah portion challenges us to see that change is possible -- now and in the future. While change can be slow, and some things are beyond our control, if we keep our eyes open, we can dream of a more just and kind world.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.