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Parshas Toldos - Seeing Behind the Lens   1 Kislev 5782

11/04/2021 09:17:15 PM


Twenty-two years ago, a young Chareidi Israeli couple arrived in San Diego with their one-month-old baby. The San Diego destination was not by choice; it was a journey of  necessity. Their baby, born without a cornea in one eye, was flown to San Diego so that he could undergo a newly developed cornea transplant operation for children born without a cornea. And so a young Chareidi couple travelled with their newborn baby from Israel to the Shiley Eye Center, nine thousand miles away from home, in order to meet the highly-specialized cornea surgeons who would hopefully give sight to the second eye of this baby boy. As the young couple prepared to leave for their trip to America, the father, who had never left Israel before and who knew only a few words of English, felt the need to discuss the situation with one his Rabbeim (teachers) from his Yeshiva.

 At the time, the Yungerman (term used for a young man learning in Kollel) was learning in Yeshiva Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan. His Rebbi, Rabbi Moshe Kopshitz, not only gave him encouragement and reassurance but a beautiful parting Dvar Torah, as is the Halacha when friends part ways.  This Dvar Torah was both touching and befitting  their upcoming, challenging trip. Rabbi Kopshitz quoted the verse from the Torah located in both the first and second paragraphs of the Shema. The passuk in Devarim 6:8 states "וקשרתם לאות על ידיך, והיו לטטפת בין עניך"  “Bind [these words] as a sign upon your hand, and let them be an emblem in between your eyes”.  There is a well-known challenge from Jews who take the written law literally and wear the head Tefillin literally on their face between their eyes. The question is, ”Why do we wear them where we do?” Rabbi Kopshitz explained that the eyes do not do the seeing; in fact, the eyes are only the lenses. It is the brain that receives the information and translates this into “seeing” something. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to place the head Tefillin precisely between the eyes but also above on the forehead, at the location of the brain. This makes perfect sense, and with these words this young father was off with his wife and baby to begin the mission. I am not completely sure if the father fully understood the concept of the cornea transplant and how it was supposed to work scientifically or whether the dvar Torah came before or after the explanation of the procedure. Nevertheless, the coming together of the procedure and how it was supposed to work combined with the Dvar Torah now became one and the same. The two were inseparable. Simultaneously, halfway across the globe Dr. Stuart Brown was making medical history. In 1991, when the Shiley Eye Center opened its doors.  Dr. Brown, through  a grant from the Shiley family, developed a way to perform corneal transplantation in babies who lacked a cornea. Dr. Brown’s theory was that if the body was to receive a cornea soon after birth, the brain would potentially connect to it, giving the chance of sight, hypothesizing that since the brain interprets images, it will send the connecting signals to the lens, perhaps creating vision in that eye with the new cornea. Timing was critical.  The brain needed to connect to a lens as soon as possible. The potential for success was directly dependent upon the amount of time which had transpired with no connection.

Dr. Brown’s incredible insight demonstrates how we each need to think about what we see, taking deliberate time to discern for the good or for the bad. We hear different idioms in the English language that resonate with this line of thinking:  seeing is believing, see the truth, see how the land lies, see the light, there are none so blind as those who will not see, see eye to eye, just you wait and see, and so forth. These expressions do not speak about physical sight; they use the word sight figuratively. This is not a foreign concept to us; we clearly see this throughout Jewish philosophy and literature, as we see in the following episode.

The Torah states in this week’s Parshas Toldos in Bereishis 27:27 "ויגש וישק לו וירח את ריח בגדיו ויברכהו, ויאמר ראה ריח בני כריח שדה אשר ברכו ה' "  “[Jacob] approached and kissed him. [Isaac] smelled the fragrance of his garments and blessed him. He said, ‘See, my son’s fragrance is like the perfume of a field blessed by God’. Rav Meir Simcha haKohein of Dvinsk in his commentary Meshech Chochma on Torah asks the obvious question: ”How is it possible to see an aroma?” Rav Meir Simcha understands that this is based upon two principles, both of which are not focused on the physical. The Midrash explains Yitzchok’s sight became weak and he could not see, meaning Yitzchok could not see the evil that his son Esau had gone out to do. He was blinded by the fact that he could not accept his own son not following in his ways. Second, the Zohar (242, 2) explains the words ‘to see’ is either referring to God or to Yitzchok. The Zohar says they are both correct because Ruach HaKodesh, the Divine Spirit and word, comes forth from the mouth of the righteous. Either explanation demonstrates seeing as an intellectual understanding, a complex comprehension of any situation in life. An additional illustration is seen in the following Gemara. 

The Gemara Rosh Hashana 26b records that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: When I went to the district of Kan Nishrayya, I heard that they called  a rooster sechvi. The Gemara explains how this information serves to clarify the meanings of biblical verses: …a rooster is called sechvi; Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: And if you wish, you can say that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said this: What is the verse that employs this term? “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts? Or who has given understanding to the sechvi (Job 38:36), which should be understood as follows: “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts”: These are the kidneys that are hidden in the body; “or who has given understanding to the sechvi”: This is a rooster, a bird who knows to crow at fixed times during the night. Rashi explains the word Sechvi is and Aramaic word that means see. Accordingly, God calls the rooster sechvi because He gave it an extraordinary ability to discern (to see) the precise moment when morning dawns. On a deeper level in Parsha Vayera 19:28 the Torah says וישקף אברהם  and Avraham stared out. However, Avraham didn’t merely stare – he thought deeply. He internalized.  Targum Onkelos explains the word Vayashkeif as V’Istchi - meaning wisdom. We must always internalize, process, discern. The term ‘hashkfa’ means philosophy – a way of processing thought.  A means for seeing through difficult situations while holding fast to the synthesis of wisdom such situations can produce. The word ‘mishkafayim’ means glasses.  Glasses help us to see with more clarity, helping to give meaning to text or to general vision.

As a Jew we should not react or do things as we see them with the naked eye. The naked eye is exactly that, naked without the brain interpreting and giving meaning to a set of circumstances. Becoming an observant Jew is not limited to going through the motions of performing the Mitzvos. The level we should aspire to when fulfilling and observing any Mitzva is the thought process, to literally seeing how this action connects me to Hashem. It is the brain that gives us the Kavana/intent and direction of where our thoughts ought to be. If we are seen doing Mitzvos without any thought or perspective, then it is an eye piece without the cornea, a lack of connection to the ultimate source of comprehension. Let us not only see ourselves doing Mitzvos and learning Torah; we need to simultaneously think about what we are seeing, what we are perceiving. Then we will truly have the Chochma  - the wisdom -  to connect to God!

Ah Gutten Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Wed, December 8 2021 4 Teves 5782