The first daf of Massechet Chagigah (2a) focusses on the mitzvah of ראייה, meaning the ‘appearing’ and ‘being seen’ at the Temple for the שלוש רגלים (i.e. the three pilgrim festivals of Pesach, Shavuot & Sukkot). However, seemingly due to the significant time, cost and effort that it took to fulfil this requirement in order to physically come to Jerusalem thrice yearly, the Mishna and subsequent Gemara list those individuals who are not obligated to fulfil this duty.
Before proceeding, it is essential to note that each case discussed in our daf deserves further consideration and discussion. However, I have chosen to focus my attention on the statement in the Mishna that a סומא – meaning someone who is blind (in both eyes) – is exempt from fulfilling this duty, as well as the subsequent debate in the Gemara whether someone who is blind in just one eye is obligated or exempt from fulfilling this duty.
Significantly, the first answer given to this question is that such a person is, in fact, obligated to fulfil the mitzvah of ראייה (‘appearing’). However, a second answer from Yochanan ben Dahavi quoting Rav Yehuda is then offered which states that someone who is blind in one eye is also exempt from this mitzvah, and it is the justification of this particular ruling – which, it should be noted, is the law as codified by the Rambam (see Hilchot Chagigah 2:1) – that I would like to discuss.
Basing himself on the ability to read the word יֵרָאֶה (Shemot 34:23) in two different ways – namely both ‘you shall be seen’, as well as, ‘you shall see’ – Rav Yehuda concludes that כדרך בא לראות כך בא ליראות, which is explained by Rashi to mean that: ‘the way that [God] sees [those who come to the Temple] is the way that [those who come to the Temple] see [God]’, and therefore, מה לראות בשתי עיניו אף ליראות בשתי עיניו – ‘just as [God] ‘sees’ with ‘two eyes’, so too He must be ‘seen’ [by those who come to the Temple] with two eyes.’
However, Rabbeinu Tam (see Tosfotד”ה יראה ) disagrees with his grandfather’s interpretation of these words which imply that God is only ‘seen’ in the Temple. Instead, he explains Rav Yehuda’s teaching to mean that just as someone (ideally) sees with two eyes, so too, only such people are obligated to appear in the Temple and be seen there by God’s ‘two eyes’.
Interestingly, it should be noted that Rav Yosef Shaul Natanson (1808-1875) explains in his ‘Divrei Shaul’ that embedded in Tosfot’s explanation is a deep philosophical idea – one which is also addressed by the Rambam (in his Moreh Nevuchim) and by Rav Yitzchak Arama (in his Akeidat Yitzchak) – that what we see and understand of God’s ways is based on the skills we hone and the efforts we make in seeing and understanding God’s ways, and by explaining this Gemara this way, Rav Natanson takes our Gemara from talking about physical sight to spiritual sight.
Having explained all this I would like to return to Rashi’s explanation of Rav Yehuda’s teaching while also reverting back to the context of the original verse in Shemot 34:23 found at the end of Parshat Ki Tissa, because just one chapter before this command of יֵרָאֶה (appearing/being seen) we read of the exchange where God explains to Moshe that לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת פָּנָי כִּי לֹא יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם וָחָי – ‘you cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live’ (Shemot 33:20) – which of course then leads us to ask how a teaching about ‘seeing’ God can be derived from a verse which appears just a chapter after an explicit verse stating that we cannot see God?
The answer, I believe, relates to the opportunity, as well as challenges, of having a physical place to encounter God which formerly was the Mishkan and which then became the Beit HaMikdash, because the very notion of considering such as place as one where God is more ‘seen’ can – at least in some ways – conflict with our core understanding of God (nb. you may recall Rashi’s approach that the Mishkan was a response to the building of the Egel HaZahav).
Given this, what I believe we find in today’s daf is a certain parallelism between the limitations we place on God and the limitations we place on people whereby, by conceiving God as being visible, we limit those whom we obligate to see Him, while in contrast as pointed out by Rav Natanson, if we emphasise the notion that God cannot be seen, we also maximise the number of those who can – at least in a spiritual capacity – see and encounter God.