November 30, 2000
Eyes Wide Shut
Why did God create us with two eyes? A Chassidic master once asked this question. His answer: One eye is for looking out -- to observe the world, other people, nature -- so that we might observe what is good and cleave to it, and what is evil and avoid it. The second eye, he taught, is for looking inward -- for gazing at ourselves, our behavior and our motivations.
But what if you lose both of those eyes? That is the lesson of Isaac, Abraham's son, himself the father of twin sons -- Jacob and Esau. The Torah describes the family's tensions, full of deceit, dysfunction and, ultimately, disintegration. At the locus of it all is the blindness of Isaac.
"Isaac's eyes were too dim to see," the text tells us. Clearly a significant detail, it is much more than a mere plot device. Interpreters in every generation have wrestled with the import of that sentence. They have asked the logical question: How and when does Isaac become blind?
Rabbinic legend suggests that Isaac's loss of eyesight results from one of his many traumatic experiences. One midrash (rabbinic teaching) offers that Isaac is blinded by the smoke emanating from the idolatrous practices committed by those around him. Another suggests that earlier in life, when he is bound to the altar as an almost-sacrifice (Genesis 22), Isaac's plight so saddens the angels that they weep before God, and those tears then fall into Isaac's eyes and cause his blindness later in life. Either way, his poor vision is understood as being caused by something outside of himself.
But perhaps there is an alternative interpretation. Perhaps, rather, Isaac's is a self-inflicted sightlessness. Maybe he can't stand to see all the disintegration, the fighting, the infliction of pain going on all around him. Instead of stepping into the sun to confront, Isaac retreats into full-time darkness, obscurity and helplessness.
"His eyes were too dim to see." Of course, Isaac's is not just a physical darkness. His is equally a spiritual blindness. He chooses not to "see" -- not to engage, not to encounter, not to try to comprehend -- the inner workings of his heart and spirit.
We, too, blind ourselves all the time. We choose not to see what others are really about, because the vision might be debilitating. We wear blinders with parents, children, friends, colleagues. And when it comes to gazing within, we skillfully wrap our feelings in a shroud of darkness.
But perhaps, sometimes, that's not such a terrible thing. Perhaps occasional blindness leads to greater vision. The Talmud has a term for blindness: sagei nahor (full of light). How could this be? How can one who cannot see be considered filled with light? Isn't blindness a state of continual darkness?
Jewish tradition has us dim our own eyes every day. As we recite the "Shema," our declaration to ourselves and others that God is one, we close or cover our eyes. For those brief moments, we become blind. And then we acknowledge God's presence in the world.
One eye is to gaze at the world out there, the other to carefully examine the self. And sometimes, both must be intentionally closed, so that we might see the divine presence in the world. And then, upon opening them again, we encounter the visions before us with eyes wide open.
Shawn Fields-Meyer is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands and instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.