Of the many physiological miracles that make up the human body, our eyes are surely among the most fascinatingly complex. Rich passageways of information and visual stimuli, these organs of sensory perception have been understood throughout history and across cultures to signify intelligence, perception, moral conscience and truth and to represent clairvoyance, prophetic power and omniscience. In the realms of literature and art, closed eyes symbolize a lack of consciousness, while open eyes symbolize spiritual, emotional and psychological awakenings.
So powerful is the human gaze that the Elizabethans, like the Romans before them, subscribed to the emission theory, the proposal that visual perception results in powerful light beams that are emitted by the human eye. Modern physics has introduced the theory of intromission, that visual perception results from light that is physically transmitted by photons from a light source, such as the sun, to visible objects, and finishes with the detector-such as the human eye.
From ancient times, the fascination with the simultaneous power and vulnerability of the human eye has given rise to metaphors that link spiritual revelation and expression. It has become commonplace for us to trope our detecting and revealing eyes as mirrors and windows. As Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho puts it, “The eyes are the mirror of the soul and reflect everything that seems to be hidden; and like a mirror, they also reflect the person looking into them.”
Strong’s Concordance reports 887 appearances of the words “eye” or “eyes” in the Torah: we are shown things that are “pleasant to the eyes,” we are told that “eyes will be opened,” we witness the importance of finding “favor” in someone’s eyes, and we observe many Biblical characters, including Lot, Avraham, Hagar and Moshe, whose perceptions alter when they “lift up” their eyes and receive knowledge.
In Parshat Chayei Sarah, the title of which suggests that it will tell about Sarah’s life but, which in fact, tells the story of how Abraham buries her and then seeks a wife for their beloved son, the Torah uses eyes to highlight the connection between Rebekah and Isaac even before they meet: both lift up their eyes and both are enlightened.
וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא – Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees the caravan of camels carrying his bride. And vision will continue to be central to Isaac’s story: he will settle near the well of “The-Living-One-Who-Sees-Me” and the loss of his eyesight will coincide with the loss of his power of perception.
וַתִּשָּׂא רִבְקָה אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־יִצְחָק – Rebekah lifts up her eyes and sees Isaac. She falls from her camel and veils herself. As we witness her response to what she has seen, we are aware of the cultural reasons for her veiling-but we cannot but wonder if her attempt to be unseen is a foreshadowing of her eventual duplicity towards her sightless husband.
We may speculate what is being revealed to Isaac’s and Rebekah’s lifted eyes, what it means to truly see another person and how often, and in what circumstances, we look beyond ourselves. We may wonder what it might be possible to see if, as the Psalmist models for us in Psalm 121, we too lift up our eyes? And we may question how the coming-together of Isaac and Rebekah is connected to the life of Sarah.
The Torah provides a summary of how their life together begins. Isaac brings Rebekah into Sarah’s tent, takes her, she becomes his wife and he loves her. According to Rashi on Midrash Rabbah (Genesis 60:16), Sarah’s tent again becomes a place of holy possibility:
“As long as … Sarah was alive, there was a candle lit from Friday night to Friday night. Her dough was blessed, and a cloud was tied to her tent. When Sarah died, all these things ceased. When Rebekah entered the tent, all these phenomena returned.”
An attentive reader might note that the Torah says nothing about love or desire on the part of Rebekah. But perhaps there is another barrier to intimacy between Isaac and Rebekah. The Zohar, 1:133a, reports:
“…even though Sarah died, her image never departed from the house, becoming invisible from the day of her death until Rebekah arrived. As soon as Rebekah entered, Sarah’s image became visible, as is written: Isaac brought her to the tent; immediately Sarah his mother appeared. No one saw her except Isaac when he entered, so Isaac was comforted after his mother-after his mother manifested, which is why the verse does not read after his mother’s death.”
As their life together makes increasingly clear, they do not just see things differently. They see different things.