When I was six years old, my family went on the trip of a lifetime. The five of us flew out west, loaded into an RV, and spent the next few weeks meandering through the vast expanses of our country’s southwestern deserts. We hit several national parks, caught sunrises at Arches and sunsets at the Grand Canyon, and – for the most part – didn’t argue all that much despite the close quarters.
But of all the breathtaking vistas that come to mind when I think of this adventure, it’s the one that I never actually saw that stands out the most.
Toward the end of our trip, we made our way through Arizona to Canyon de Chelly and read the sign describing the 830-foot spire standing across the canyon called Spider Rock. Navajo lore tells us that many moons ago, Spider-Woman descended from above onto the top of this rock and now hides in a crack between it and another, shorter one. And when she gets hungry, she ensnares children in her web, carries them up to the top of Spider Rock, and leaves their bones – stripped clean – atop the tower.
Rising from the floor of an otherwise empty canyon, Spider Rock is impossible to miss. It would be like encountering the Empire State Building if the rest of Manhattan were filled only with Ranch Houses. Nevertheless, my six-year-old self stood at the edge of the canyon and gazed out aimlessly into the abyss with a befuddled look on my face.
“That’s why the top of the rock is bright white,” my father explained to me, filling in the information from a pamphlet that a tour guide had given him. “Because she leaves the bones at the top of the rock. Get it?”
“Abba, I get the story, but what rock are you talking about?” I replied. And that’s when my parents realized I needed glasses.
And as much as I resented the teasing that would soon follow (my glasses were approximately a foot thick, correcting for astigmatism and near-sightedness, and, well, this was the late ’80s), I reveled in my newfound superpower. There was so much of the world that became revealed to me through those new lenses; the world was so much bigger than my six-year-old self ever imagined! Back home in New England, the fall leaves went from blurry brushstrokes to breathtaking fireworks. At six years old and 10% on the height chart, I already felt humbled by the sheer size of the world around me. But with these lenses on, I felt closer to it, too. And while I still have yet to actually see Spider Rock in person, I’ll always have it to thank for opening up my world in such a miraculous way.
The Torah employs a number of different words and phrases to describe the moment that one of its characters sees something for the first time, but one, in particular, seems to emphasize when they do so with intention. The phrase “to lift up one’s eyes” is often used to convey that the character is not only seeing something (or someone) but actively seeking it, as well. And this week’s portion gives us a memorable scene in which the phrase is used twice when Isaac and Rebekah – later married – each first lay eyes on the other.
But I share this now, not to reflect on what happened after they lifted up their eyes; we know full well that they fell in love, married, and started a family together soon thereafter. Rather, let’s focus on what happened right before they lifted up their eyes, as I believe those moments can offer even greater insight to us today.
In the verses preceding Rebekah’s witnessing her soon-to-be-beloved from afar, she is surrounded by her family and by Avraham’s servant, who is tasked with setting up Rebekah to become Isaac’s wife. And as they prepare to send her off, they offer her a profoundly beautiful blessing, one which I would like to explore on two levels.
“Oh, sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads…”
On the surface, the blessing is about Rebekah building a family – the “thousands of myriads” is a reference to a hope for many generations of offspring. But on a deeper level, the blessing primes her for the thousands of possibilities that her vision will soon behold when she meets Isaac. She will see in him a myriad of ways that their life might unfold, countless paths they may walk together, innumerable stories they could soon live into. And when she lifts up her eyes to see him, a midrash notes that she looks up “in astonishment” as the blessing prepared her to see now only what her eyes took in but what her soul was prepared to seek.
Similarly, Isaac is also primed to look deeper before he first lays eyes on Rebekah. We read that “Isaac went out to pray in the field toward evening,” and an alternate translation reads: “to meditate.” So Isaac, too, does not simply look out and lay his eyes on Rebekah, but he spends time setting his intentions, preparing for the moment.
But here is the most important part, the one that I hope can serve as a model for each of us today: Sforno (16th century Italy) notes that Isaac “had detoured from his regular path to the field,” meaning that he prepared himself to see the world differently, simply by taking a slightly different path to get where he was going. And it was precisely because he was prepared to see the world through a different lens that his encounter with Rebekah proved so fateful. Not only did he lift his eyes up to see her, but he put on “lenses” that allowed him to fully experience the moment.
The lenses I got when I was six years old were external – I could put them on and see the world anew. And – for a while at least – every time I lifted up my eyes with those new glasses on, it felt like a brief moment of revelation. But after a number of these little revelations, I started to get used to those lenses and quickly forgot what life was like before them. And that’s how life works; novelty wears off, and we grow accustomed to even the most priceless gifts. Such is the human condition.
When Rebekah and Isaac first lift their eyes up to one another, they’re both wearing new sets of internal lenses, giving them insights into the possibilities that each held for the other. Rebekah’s blessing for a “thousand myriads” and Isaac’s meandering, meditative new path both prepare them to see the world differently and – in turn – to experience one another for the fullness of their beings. And that’s why the text takes such great care to distinguish this “seeing” from all others; because not only were they seeing, they were seeking. And I can imagine them, even in their old age, going through these same preparations before Shabbat, or a pilgrimage, or even just some mundane day, refreshing their lenses to experience one another like new, all over again.
My hope for each of us is – lest we take our surroundings (our family, our friends, our planet) for granted, we seek out ways to see them anew. Whether that means pausing before greeting our beloved in the morning to reflect on the blessings they’ve bestowed upon us over the years, or walking a less-trodden path to wherever we’re headed, or embracing a conversational tangent with a friend, or just meditating for a brief moment before engaging with someone who is decidedly not (yet) a friend, there are countless ways to put on new lenses to find new revelations in life. And if we do so with great care, day in and day out, we might just discover the blessing that’s been there all along: endless possibility.
Rabbi Elan Babchuck is committed to leaving behind a world that is more compassionate and connected than the one he found. In pursuit of that commitment he serves as the Executive Vice President at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Founding Executive Director of Glean Network, which partners with Columbia Business School. He was ordained in 2012, and earned his MBA that year, as well.
A sought-after thought leader, he has delivered keynotes at stages ranging from TEDx to the US Army’s General Officer Convocation, published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, Washington Post, and Religion News Service, has a column for The Wisdom Daily, contributed to Meaning Making – 8 Values That Drive America’s Newest Generations (2020, St. Mary’s Press) and is the co-author of the forthcoming book Picking Up the Pieces: Leadership After Empire (2023, Fortress Press).
He also serves as:
- a Founding Partner of Starts With Us, a movement to counteract toxic polarization in America,
- a Research Advisory Board Member of Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on spirituality, mental health and Gen Z,
- a founding board member of Beloved Network, a network of startup Jewish communities, and
- a member of the Board of Advisors of the Changemaker Initiative.
He lives in Providence, Rhode Island with his wife, Lizzie Pollock, and their three children: Micah, Nessa, and Ayla. In his spare time, he finds sanctuary while climbing rock walls around New England and tending to his backyard garden.