The same words can mean different things. Maimonides taught that the
phrase “He said” has one meaning when it refers to human speech and another
when it applies to divine communication. Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that words
have different meanings depending on the context. A strike in baseball is not
the same as a strike in soccer.
In the Jewish tradition, when a rabbi refers to the parashah of the week, it means the weekly reading from the Torah cycle. In Israel, parashah of the week refers to the news. But often one has something to say to the other.
Of course, the observance this past week of Remembrance Day and Kristallnacht bring memories of sacrifices for the protection and preservation of democracy and freedom, as well as about anti-semitism and the assault on the safety of Jews and marginalized minorities.
In this week's parashah, through the story of Hagar, we learn an important lesson about seeing and hearing. Rabbi Avital Hochstein points out: “Seeing connects with the concrete; to see people means to accept their presence, to reject the possibility of avoiding them. Moreover, the experience of being seen can help a person to see, thus creating the possibility of a mutual relationship.” The Hagar narrative provides insight into the recent news about the American election and the death of Leonard Cohen.
Initially, when Sarai and Avram seem unable to have children, Sarai suggests to Avram: “Consort with my maid, Perhaps I shall have a son through her." Hagar becomes pregnant, but this alters the relationship with Sarai. Hagar’s “mistress was lowered in her esteem.” Sarai blames her husband, but Avram's response to this challenging situation is to turn it back to Sarai: "Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right. Then Sarai treated her harshly and she ran away from her."
Hagar becomes a fugitive, fleeing to the wilderness. There she is found by an angel of God: The angel said: “Go back to your mistress and submit to her harsh treatment…. I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count.” The angel then tells Hagar “You are now with child and shall bear a son. You shall call him by the name, Yishmael, for God has paid heed (shama) to your suffering."
Hagar's pain has been heard by God. She is told "God has heard (shama) your suffering” and responded. But she is instructed to name her son Yishmael, which points to the future: ”God will hear.”
Hagar responds in a subtle and subversive way. She does not immediately name her child. Instead, she names God: "She called the Eternal One who spoke to her, You are El-Ro’i.” According to the angel, the child's name will indicate that God hears (shamah), but Hagar's name for God El-Ro’i, points to God as seeing (ro’eh). Hagar changes the way God is described. She does not reflect the experience of being heard, but of being seen.
The Etz H̱ayim commentary indicates that El-Ro’i has multiple understandings: “Literally, ‘God of seeing,’ that is, the all-seeing God. Also, ‘God of my seeing,’ that is, who I have seen; and [third,] ‘God who sees me.’ The several meanings are apprehended simultaneously.”
Rabbi Hochstein notes that we can hear many simultaneous voices and see many images in one glance. Our sight and hearing can be more or less intense. Vision is similar to touch since each is both spatial and somehow “tangible.” In contrast, sound is more abstract, and could be understood as having more of a spiritual quality.
The angel, as a spiritual being, relates to hearing. Hagar, a human, is more closely identified with the tangible sense of sight. The name Yishmael indicates that Hagar is heard and recognized. The name El-Ro’i, points to having one’s identity and existence validated, being seen rather than being invisible. If being heard tells Hagar there is significance to her words, the experience of being seen teaches her that there is value to her very being.” This is very different from the way Hagar felt treated by Sarai.
When Hagar calls God El-Ro’i, she indicates a reciprocal relationship. “I have seen God after being seen.” It is as if she were saying, “Now that others can see me, I can also see them.” Also, she sees the One who sees her in a way that enables her to associate a name with God. If naming conveys the essence of another, then not only did she see God, but she can name God; “I understand who you are.”
The American election was also about being heard or not, being seen or not. Minority communities of blacks and Hispanics felt that they were unseen as real people and that their concerns were not being adequately addressed. In the fly-over states, the white folk whose job prospects have dimmed, the shoppers who felt ignored or demeaned by the bi-coastal elites—they, too, felt unseen and unheard.
The challenge—for America, but also in Canada—is for us to see and hear each other, to recognize the deep sense of pain that others feel and to find a way to name and understand each other. Not by accusations of criminality and lack of credibility, and not by anti-semitic, racist or misogynistic attacks. Can we, with sensitivity, learn to listen to and see each other?
In her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova writes about Leonard Cohen. She notes that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Western world was euphoric about the belief that democracy was coming to Eastern Europe, “Cohen foresaw the complexity and darkness that this reach for light would unravel, and captured it in an astonishingly timely song.”
It’s coming through a hole
in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
Years later, in a conversation with journalist Paul Zollo, Cohen explained: “I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song, too.”
Cohen originally wrote additional lyrics. This was a paragraph he did not include:
From the church where the outcasts can hide
Or the mosque where the blood is dignified.
Like the fingers on your hand,
Like the hourglass of sand,
We can separate but not divide
From the eye above the pyramid.
And the dollar’s cruel display
From the law behind the law,
Behind the law we still obey
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
Cohen explained why he chose to take these verses out: “I didn’t want it to get too punchy. I didn’t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.” This is not a time for confrontation, call-to-arms or defence. This is a time to go forth, to listen and recognize others, to see and have each others’ existence validated.
The Torah parashah of the week reminds us to carefully read the Book of Books, to see God and each other and to realize the difficult challenges that we have been presented by the news parashah of the past week.
Maybe then we’ll have a revelation in the heart.
Rabbi Avital Hochstein https://www.mechonhadar.org/torah-resource/she-called-god-name