Portion of the Week / 'Lift Up Your Eyes on High'

From Rashi's standpoint, the major drama in Egypt is taking shape not as a result of all of the choices made by Jacob's children, but rather because of the great love of the 'stage director' - of God.

The Book of Exodus, which we will begin to read tomorrow, opens with a recount of the Children of Israel: "Now these are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man came with his household" (Exodus 1:1 ).

The Children of Israel were already tallied two weeks ago in Parashat Vayigash, so why does the Torah repeat the counting? Rashi explains it with Drasha: "Although God counted the sons of Israel during their lifetime and referred to them by name, he counts them once more after their death, to show how much he loves them. They are compared to the stars , which go in and out by number, as it is written, 'He that bringeth out their host by number, he calleth them all by name' (Isaiah 40:26 )."

Israelites in Egypt illustration - January 2012

Thus, Rashi explains, the tallying of the Children of Israel reflects God's love for them; it is as if someone is counting his treasures. To further clarify this, Rashi uses images that God created for Abraham in Parashat Lech Lecha. "And Abram said: 'Behold, to me thou hast given no seed, and, lo, one born in my house is to be mine heir' ... And [God] brought him forth abroad, and said: 'Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them'; and he said unto him: 'So shall thy seed be.' And [Abram] believed in the Lord" (Genesis 15:3-6 ).

When Abram despairs of his solitude, God shows him the stars, which reflect his future descendants. The stars' numerousness reflects the infiniteness of his future generations. But Rashi uses this easy-to-recover metaphor in a totally different way: Now, in the Book of Exodus, the stars are a mirror not for some imagined, future offspring, but instead reflect Abraham's existing descendants, who descended into Egypt. In the earlier narrative, the unique characteristic of the stars is the impossibility of counting them, but in this case, for Rashi, they represent a measurable number. The process that the metaphor undergoes from Lech Lecha to Shemot is thus a precise summary of the story of Abraham's descendants.

Rashi's commentary on the verse does not end here, however. He compares the counting of the Children of Israel to the stars, which God takes out and puts back, referring to them by name. The setting of this scene is the night: The Children of Israel shine in it like stars. They are not fixed in the sky, but rather appear and depart, as do stars. Egypt is the nocturnal stage on which God directs the major drama of the Children of Israel.

This theatrical and poetic picture is supported by Rashi's citation of the following verse: "To whom then will ye liken Me, that I should be equal? saith the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and see: Who hath created these? He that bringeth out their host by number, He calleth them all by name; by the greatness of His might, and for that He is strong in power, not one faileth" (Isaiah 40:25-26 ).

Isaiah opens with God's declaration that he cannot be compared with any other being. To enable the Israelites to grasp this uniqueness and greatness, God tells them to look up "and see ... these." God is pointing to the stars, which "he bringeth out by number" as if they were his armies. Each star is privileged to be called, and given a name and a place in God's army; each enters and leaves as per divine decree. The purpose of lifting one's gaze heavenward is not simply to be astounded by the stars' military parade, but rather to understand what has given rise to this drama: "[A]nd see: who hath created these."

Rashi's citation of Isaiah contains a hidden suggestion for the reader beginning the Book of Exodus. Rashi seems to observe events from a distance, and proposes the same viewpoint for the reader. From Rashi's standpoint, the major drama in Egypt is taking shape not as a result of all of the choices made by Jacob's children, but rather because of the great love of the "stage director" - of God, who pulls the hidden strings that activate Joseph's brothers and their descendants, strings seen only by someone who looks after them. Rashi's interpretation, which can be grasped only by someone who knows the source of the verse, can't happen by itself, the raising of one's gaze will allow for a new reading of the "text" of the stars.

Abraham is invited to look up at the stars because they symbolize his descendants, and his heavenward gaze immediately causes a change of heart, a reversal in mood: He moves from despair over the lack of prospects and his loneliness, to hopefulness in light of the stars' symbolic embodiment of omnipotence. All of nature thus reflects Abraham's future.

Rashi also wants to "overturn" the reader's heart, not by making the reader look at the future but rather by widening the spectrum - by moving from the precise study of details to the study of the one who pulls the strings. To go from viewing the story as a drama of exile and redemption, of hardship and rescue, to seeing it in its entirety - from the descent into Egypt, the hard physical labor, the splitting of the Red Sea and the granting of the Torah on Mount Sinai - as a theater of love.

In a celebrated commentary in the Book of Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (Rashbi ) interprets the verse cited by Rashi as signifying different parts of the godhead. "Lift up your eyes on high," says the Zohar, focusing on the point where God began to reveal himself. This point is so thin and abstract that it is difficult to give it a name, and thus it is called "who." In contrast with this point, the "these" mentioned above are the individual parts of the creation, here - the stars. The Zohar points out that the letters of the two Hebrew words mi (who) and eleh (these), put together and switched around form the word elohim - God. Therefore the Zohar reads the verse not as a question, but as a declaration. One can point to the stars with one's finger and say "these." It is impossible to put a finger on the "who" because, as it says in Isaiah: "To whom then will ye liken me, that I should be equal?" On the other hand, it is also impossible to be content with "these" - eleh, in Hebrew alone. According to the Zohar, those persons who are content with "these" and do not ask the "who" question can be seen as the sinners who committed the sin of the golden calf and pointed to it, declaring, "This is thy god (eleh elohekha ), O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (Exod. 32:4 ). They made a declaration but did not ask the "who" question. "Lift up your eyes on high," says the verse in Isaiah, meaning, according to the Zohar, look at the entire spectrum so you can see that the hidden point is the source from which "these" were created. Only one who gazes heavenward to see "these" and, through them, to see "who" is exposed to the entire picture.

And what will the reader do? The reader who listens to Rashi's suggestion, will look carefully at "these" and connect them to "who." And the power of gazing heavenward will generate the wonderful creation of God's name, Elohim.