By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
I lift up my eyes to the mountains . . . (Tehillim 121:1)
There are numerous places in Tanach where the expression “he lifted up his eyes” appears. In Parashas Lech-Lecha, we found that:
“Lot lifted up his eyes and saw the Jordan plain” (Bereishis 13:10).
Here, in the beginning of Parashas Vayeira, it says: “He (Avraham) lifted up his eyes and looked. And, behold, there were three men standing” (18:2). Similarly, at the Akeidah, we find it says twice that Avraham “lifted up his eyes”: “He (Avraham) lifted up his eyes and he saw the place from afar” (22:4); “He (Avraham) lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket” (22:13).
When Eliezer was returning with Rivkah, it says concerning Yitzchak, “And he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming” (24:63).
Lest we think that only men “lift up their eyes,” we find that “Rivkah lifted up her eyes and saw Yitzchak” (ibid., v. 64). And, lehavdil, “The wife of his master lifted up her eyes to Yosef, and said . . .” (39:7).
Throughout Tanach, we find this term used in different situations. All commentators agree that “lifting up the eyes” is stressing a change from originally “looking down.” It seems that the Torah uses this term when it wants to highlight the fact that the individual in question was originally looking down.
Sometimes, the commentators say that the eyes were focused downward out of modesty and the person raised his or her eyes because they wanted to see something. This highlights the fact that their eyes were always modestly down. However, we find such a grand mixture of people and situations to which this term is applied that it is hard to say that it always implies positive qualities such as modesty or the like.
The leitmotif that emerges is that a person sees what he wants to see and seeks what he wants to seek. There is a prior intention and desire that informs one’s visual perceptions. Lot was looking for gashmiyus, for the life of this world. He was looking for the negative and lifted up his eyes and found it in Sodom. Avraham was looking to provide hospitality to wayfarers, hachnasas orchim. He was looking for travelers, and he lifted up his eyes and he, too, found what he was looking for. Yitzchak was waiting for the return of Rivkah; and Rivkah was waiting to see Yitzchak. In each of these cases, the person was raising his or her eyes to find what they were seeking. That is what we find by the wife of Potiphar as well. So it is with each of the verses mentioned above, as well as with many others that are beyond our scope to examine here.
This principle is best expressed in Parashas Vayeitzei. The verse there has nothing to do with eyes, but it sheds light on our subject nonetheless. It tells of Yaakov’s reaction to what Hashem had promised him in the vision of the ladder ascending to heaven: “Yaakov lifted up his feet and went to the land of the people of the east” (29:1). “Once he received the good news—that his safety was guaranteed—his heart lifted his feet, making it easy to walk” (Rashi, ibid.).
Rashi is saying that the heart, which is the seat of emotion, made the walking easier. It lifted him up. A yearning that exists in the heart and motivates it, the emotional drive of the heart, moves the rest of the body. This is the meaning of “Yaakov lifted up his feet,” and we may apply it to cases of “he (or she) lifted up his eyes.” It implies that whatever was in their heart drove their body to action. Whatever was in their heart directed their eyes. That is what it means in the third paragraph of the Shema: “Do not go after your heart and after your eyes . . .” (Bamidbar 15:39). “The heart desires and the eyes see” (Rashi, ibid.).
On a deeper level, this means that whatever the heart desires, that is what the eye will want to see. When it is for the good, then you have Avraham Avinu looking for hachnasas orchim. When it is for the bad, you have Lot looking for Sodom.
A person sees what he wants to see. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Beraishis.