The Torah in Parashat Toldot tells the famous story of the blessing which Yitzchak intended to give to his older son, Esav, but which was taken by Yaakov after Yitzchak’s wife, Rivka, had Yaakov disguise as Esav and deceive his father. This section begins by informing us that Yitzchak lost his eyesight in his later years (27:1), thus setting the stage for the deception.
Rashi cites a number of reasons why Yitzchak was struck with blindness, one of which, cited from the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 65:6) relates to his experience at the akeida, when his father placed him upon an altar and nearly slaughtered him as a sacrifice: “When he was bound upon the altar and his father sought to slaughter him, at that moment, the heavens opened and the ministering angels saw and cried. Their tears descended onto his eyes, and so his eyesight dimmed.”
Rav Shmuel Berenbaum found it significant that the Midrash describes the heavens “opening” at the time of the akeida. Did God really need to open the heavens to show the angels what was happening? Are they incapable of seeing the events here on earth without God opening the heavens?
Rav Berenbaum explained that God wanted the angels to empathize with the pain endured by Avraham and Yitzchak at that moment, and this necessitated His “opening” the heavens. From the perspective of the heavens, all events in our world are good and just. As God is good, everything He does is, by definition, good. Evil and misfortune are experienced as such only from our human, earthly perspective. We are required to pray that tragedies not occur, and to mourn when they do occur, because we are expected to view life from our human frame of reference, from which tragedies are indeed tragic. But the angels view our world’s events from the heavens, where everything is, by definition, the ultimate good, the manifestation of the impeccably just divine will. At the time of akeidat Yitzchak, however, God “opened the heavens” and brought the angels to look upon the scene from the human vantage point. From the perspective of our world, the sight of a father prepared to kill his son is excruciatingly painful and tragic. And so the angels wept, as they were shown the scene of the akeida from the human perspective, rather than from a heavenly perspective.
On this basis, we might suggest an explanation for why the Midrash associates Yitzchak’s blindness with this incident. Many writers have noted that the description of Yitzchak visual impairment as the introduction to the story of the blessings is likely intended both literally and figuratively. Yitzchak was not only “blind” in the sense that his eyes stopped functioning, but also “blind” in the sense that he was unable to properly assess Esav. The story of the blessings began with Yitzchak’s figurative “blindness,” in his failure to accurately see who Esav was, and recognize that he did not deserve his blessing. The Midrash perhaps associates this “blindness” with the angels’ tears at the time of the akeida because it was this model of empathy, of stepping into somebody else’s frame of reference, that resulted in Yitzchak’s “blindness.” Yitzchak followed this example in his own life, descending from the “heavens,” from his lofty stature of piety, to empathize with the struggles of others. He refused to judge Esav critically because he insisted on seeing things from Esav’s viewpoint, rather than impose his own standards and frame of reference onto his son – precisely as the angels had done for him when they viewed his condition from his vantage point, and not from the vantage point of the heavens.
If so, then the Midrash here alludes to the delicate balance that must be maintained with regard to empathy. On the one hand, we must follow the angels’ example and try as much as possible to assess others from their vantage point, from the perspective of their experiences and background, and take into account their unique challenges before rendering judgment. At the same time, however, especially when dealing with students and children, we cannot allow empathy to “blind” us to problems that need to be addressed. Yitzchak was correct in “opening the heavens” and empathizing with Esav, but he erred in overlooking Esav’s sinfulness and deeming him worthier of his blessing than Yaakov. While we must try as much as possible to judge people favorably by stepping into their shoes and assessing them on their level, we cannot allow ourselves to be “blinded” to faults that require attention and must be addressed.