Even if our eyes glance at something, we do not always see it.
One common assumption to explain why women spend more time cleaning is that men do not notice or identify a mess to the extent that women typically do. Researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara, with colleagues at Emory University and the University of Melbourne, ruled out this explanation after showing 622 men and women photographs of a messy home and a neat home. Since the men did not respond differently than the women, the study concluded that men are not blind to messes but must have a higher tolerance for them.
On the other hand, we often do fail to notice or see the obvious.
To my mild chagrin, I once experienced this in the sanctuary of a shul when I wanted to know what time it was. My surprise mounted as I was unable to find a clock anywhere in the room after searching each of the walls and then double-checking. I began to speculate why someone would not want a clock in a sanctuary. Then, I finally saw it, directly in the center of the room — an enormous digital clock with brightly illuminated red digits.
How did I miss a fully visible, conspicuous clock despite looking over the spot where it was hanging several times? I realized that since I was expecting and looking for an analog clock — with 12 numerals and minute and second hands, I was unable to “see” the bright display of the digital clock even though my eyes took in its image.
If our mind is seeking and focused on one thing, it may not register a different one. Our vision is ultimately a partnership between our eyes and our minds.
When Hagar runs off into the desert, she encounters an angel but is not caught by surprise since she was accustomed to seeing angels in Avraham’s caravan. Her muted reaction contrasts with Manoach’s hundreds of years later in the Book of Judges (Ch. 13), who is stricken with horror and awe when he and his wife witnessed an angel. (See Rashi, Genesis 17:13)
According to the third-century sage, Rabbi Chiya, this discrepancy demonstrates the greatness of the earlier generation, which was lost to the later generation. While it is tempting to interpret Chiya as decrying the reduced merit of the later generations and their consequently reduced angelic visits, I prefer what is perhaps a more profound interpretation that asserts that although angels are ever-present, the later generations lost the spiritual competence to see them.
Manoach, according to this approach, also merited living with angels in his midst, perhaps to the same extent as Avraham and Sara. His eroded sensitivity to their presence interfered with him discovering them — except the one exceptional time that he did.
While we cannot know whether we, too, have hidden angels present, there is little doubt that we do have innumerable miracles, wonders and extraordinary human beings in our midst. How much of this beauty, genius, inspiration and godliness goes unnoticed?
Much like the clock on the wall of the shul, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, if we are in too much of a rush or if we are solipsistically wrapped up in ourselves, they will be missed even when our lines of sight pass directly over them. When we slow down and think about what our eyes see, we will tap into ancestral greatness that may not enable us to see angels but will not fail to enrich us. JN
Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.