Congregation Beth Israel
Monday, September 10, 2018 | 1 Tishrei 5779
Has it really been a year already? It’s amazing that we’re celebrating our second Rosh Hashanah together today and at the same time it’s unbelievable that we’re only celebrating our second Rosh Hashanah together.
So much has happened in the year that’s gone by. As a community we have marked our own transition, beginning many new projects and initiatives and continuing to grow in many areas. As individuals many have celebrated life’s milestones. With weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, graduations, and babies, it has been a year filled with so many special moments. At the same time though, others have faced difficult times this past year. Losing loved ones, facing declining health, and accepting harsh realities have made this year something many may be ready to leave behind. But recognizing those challenges alongside our celebrations is part of what makes us a community.
For me personally, it has been a year of tremendous growth. Growing as a rabbi together with this community has had its challenges but has also been beyond rewarding. Continuing to grow as a husband, and of course as a father has also not been without its challenges and sleepless nights, but on this I can say with full confidence, the reward of watching Micah grow in only a year has far outweighed the lost sleep.
Now that Micah has passed his first birthday, I’ve often found myself thinking back to what was happening a year ago. Naomi and I joke frequently that at the time we had no idea what we were doing (we still don’t by the way), and that Micah looks so different then compared to today. As adorable as Micah was in early September last year, he definitely hadn’t quite grown into himself yet.
Comparing it with pictures from this year, we can see how far he’s come.
It’s fun to look back at old pictures, isn’t it? Phones, Facebook, and other apps have made this fairly easy. For example, we can take a peek at this young 9th or 10th grader from about 20 years ago.
He’s come along way, hasn’t he?
Or how about this young soon-to-be college graduate?
Thankfully, he too has come a long way and grown into our congregational president, Jason Hoberman.
There’s one more picture I want to take a look at, also from about 20 years ago.
Ok, why are we looking at a picture of Tiger Woods? Is it because this past year was the first time Tiger has been relevant in about 20 years? That may be true, but no. Is it because the story of Tiger Woods’ personal struggles and time spent in rehab before finally returning to his old form this year would be a great message about the power of Teshuvah and repentance for Rosh Hashanah? Well, it would, but also no. It’s because we can learn a lot from looking at a picture of Tiger from 20 years ago and comparing it to one today. What do you notice when we look at this picture from 1997, compared to this picture from just a few weeks ago.
What do you see in this picture? Sure, Tiger has aged in 20 years, but who hasn’t? The important part here is the crowd. Phones, cameras, devices. The first picture is from 1997. I didn’t get my first personal cell phone until a few years later. We had a family one earlier that I had to share with my brother and sister… you can guess how that went. And even when the time finally came for me to have my own phone, it couldn’t do much more than make a call – during free nights and weekends of course – and play Snake. Talk about coming a long way.
Now, I want to be clear about something right up front. This is not a sermon about the dangers of technology and our need to disconnect and look up from our phones. I believe that our devices can be tremendous resources, but like everything else, should be used in moderation. This is an area in which I can do a better job practicing what I preach and it’s something I hope to work on for the year ahead. But that is not what this sermon is about. This sermon is about how we look at the world.
Look at this picture again. Here we have hundreds of people, passionate golf fans we can assume. They are at a major tournament, witnessing, in person, the greatest golfer of our generation. And they choose to see him on a 5 inch screen. This is far from just a sports phenomenon. Three summers ago, Naomi and I traveled to Yellowstone National Park. While waiting for Old Faithful, the geyser, to erupt and put on its show, we saw many people, ourselves included, preparing their phones and camera for the best vantage points. I remember a family right next to us, with the mother reminding her children that when the eruption began they should be sure to watch “in the real world” and not just on their phone screens, because they would have a better memory that way. And she’s correct. We so often travel to beautiful places, or witness incredible moments, and are more focused on capturing the moment on our cameras than in our minds.
In so many ways, the devices in our pockets have become a lens, a filter, for how we look at the world, and I don’t just mean Instagram filters and camera screens, but the very ways in which we interact with the world and people around us. For example, as we scroll through pictures and read posts on social media, we generally only see people at their best. Vacation pictures, a special date night dinner, kids in a rare moment of smiling and getting along. Sure these moments are real and worth sharing, but do they present an authentic image of ourselves? It’s so easy for us to see these carefully curated posts and then feel worse about our own lives. How come we aren’t as much fun as they are? Clearly we’re doing something wrong.
Likewise, we consume news and happenings in the world through similar filters. The line between fact and opinion gets blurrier and blurrier every day and our own information comes with a dose of punditry wherever we get it from. We see endless opinions, comments, and “hot takes” online that immediately filter how we interpret and understand what is happening. We then either rush to make our own witty statements in hopes of going viral, or we hesitate to share what we think, lest our opinions be used out of context and be deemed out of touch and outside the Overton Window. As the Simpsons code of the schoolyard teaches us, “never say anything unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.” (Season 1, Bart the General) Our view of the world is filtered on its way in, and we filter it further before putting it back into the world. All of our devices, all of our modern media, whether print or broadcast or online, distract us from ourselves. Instead of viewing the world through our own eyes, we see it through someone else’s.
How do we reverse this trend? How can we begin to remove all these filters and see with our own eyes once again? The Torah reading for this first day of Rosh Hashanah offers a suggestion. What is it we read today on this start of our new year, this anniversary of creation? We read about new life, specifically Isaac’s birth and his early childhood. A year after three angels visited Abraham and Sarah informing them a child would be born, their word came true with Isaac’s birth. He is circumcised at eight days and some time later was weaned after which Abraham held a a great feast.
But it’s then that the interesting part begins.
וַתֵּ֨רֶא שָׂרָ֜ה אֶֽת־בֶּן־הָגָ֧ר הַמִּצְרִ֛ית אֲשֶׁר־יָלְדָ֥ה לְאַבְרָהָ֖ם מְצַחֵֽק׃
“Sarah saw, the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.” (Gen 21:9)
Sarah took note of Abraham’s other son Ishmael and his mother Hagar. But what was the first word again? “Sarah saw…” Over the next several verses, words relating to sight come up again and again. Sarah did not approve of how her mixed family was interacting so she asked Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. This bothered Abraham though as the Torah says, וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם, “The matter was troubling in the eyes of Abraham.” (Gen 21:11) God tells Abraham not to worry, because a great nation will come from Ishmael, as He says, אַל־יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ, do not let this trouble your eyes.” With God’s assurance, Abraham agreed to Sarah’s wishes and sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. But after some time their water ran out and the two faced danger. Hagar grew greatly concerned and in the voice that only a mother can recall cried out, אַל־אֶרְאֶה בְּמוֹת הַיָּלֶד , “let me not look on as the child dies.” (Gen 21:16)
It really is a heartbreaking scene. A mother cast out of her home along with her child, now in danger in the wilderness, unable to look on at what she is sure will be his death. It is at that moment the boy cries out and his cry is heard by God. God answers their prayers saying, “Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” (Gen 21:17-18)
With Hagar comforted by God’s promises the Torah continues,
וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּא אֶת־הַחֵמֶת מַיִם וַתַּשְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּעַר׃
“Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink.” (Gen 21:19)
How does God help Hagar in this moment of trauma? By opening her eyes so she could see. The commentaries tell us that this was not a miracle. God did not create a well where there had not been one, instead He helped Hagar to see what was already there. To see clearly, with her own eyes.
This whole passage is in many ways fascinating, and also troubling. It speaks to the power of prayer, of family, of complicated family dynamics. But it is also about sight. Over these 12 biblical verses there are no less than 6 reference to sight. The text is reminding us of the importance of looking through our own eyes, of seeing what is in front of us. At the climactic moment, God removes the filter from Hagar – וַיִּפְקַח אֱלֹהִים אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ – and at last she is able to see. It’s the same language we use every day when we say Birchot HaShachar, our morning blessings. פוקח עורים – Blessed are you, Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who opens our eyes. Every day we thank God for the ability to literally open our eyes, and we remind ourselves to figuratively open them too.
What does it really mean to see for ourselves, without the filters we have become so dependent on? It means to see things as they are in our own mind. To not be overcome by groupthink and loud pundits. But instead to be informed, to analyze, to think for ourselves, and be confident in our outlooks. Confident enough to even share them and passionately discuss what we say. The word “share” even means something different today than it once did, but we can bring back the understanding that sharing takes partnership and respect among those with whom we share.
It sounds so easy – to simply see and understand, to think for ourselves. But we all know this is more difficult than it sounds. Perhaps we need some help – an additional filter for how we look at the world. We need the filter of God. To look at our lives and our world as God would. This is clearly no small task to try and take on a divine perspective. We can think of many examples of God working in mysterious ways without our understanding, so how can we possibly determine what it is God looks for in us? Thankfully, there are a few passages from the Tanakh that enlighten us, with two in particular I want to share.
In the Book of Deuteronomy the question itself is laid out.
וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם־לְיִרְאָה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לָלֶכֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו וּלְאַהֲבָה אֹתוֹ וְלַעֲבֹד אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ: לִשְׁמֹר אֶת־מִצְוֹת ה’ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לְטוֹב לָךְ:
“What does God demand of you? To revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.” (Deut 10:12-13)
How do we look through God’s eyes? What does God look for in us? To revere, to respect, to show awe and deference to God, to follow in God’s paths.
Or as the Prophet Micah (one of my favorites) teaches us:
הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם מַה־טּוֹב וּמָה־ה׳ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ כִּי אִם־עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃
“He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
This is God’s filter. To see through God’s eyes is to find justice, modesty, and goodness. To look at the world through God’s eyes is to seek out these attributes around us, and in places where we cannot find them, work to create them. Justice, modesty, and goodness.
The rabbis actually teach that all of the Mitzvot, all 613 commandments are based on these three (Makkot 24a). So many of the people we admire exemplify precisely these characteristics. From philanthropists, to politicians, even among our friends, these are the traits we most search for and so can understand how the rest of our mitzvot can be based on them. As we begin the year ahead, let this be our challenge. To seek out justice, modesty, and goodness in the people and world around us. To view everything through this lens. To see the world through God’s eyes.
In just over a week, at Kol Nidrei services, we’ll sing the words of a Piyut, a liturgical poem called כי הנה כחמר. This passage beautifully describes aspects of our relationship with God. “As clay in the hand of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand.” It continues with many other metaphors for the relationship with God that we intuitively feel during the High Holidays. “As a stone in the hand of the mason… As iron in the hand of the blacksmith… As the helm in the hand of the sailor…”
One of the stanzas begins with the description, “As a thread in the hands of the weaver…”
Every time I hear this phrase I cannot help but think of the opening lines to a beautiful song from the movie Prince of Egypt.
“A single thread in a tapestry
though its color brightly shines,
can never see its purpose
in the pattern of the grand design.
And the stone that sits up on the very top
of the mountain’s mighty face,
does it think it’s more important
than the stones that form the base.
So how can you see what your life is worth
or where your value lies
ohhhh, you can never see through the eyes of man
you must look at your life,
look at your life through heaven’s eyes.”
To look at our life through heaven’s eyes. That is our charge for the year ahead. To strive to see the world as God does. To find the good in people around us. To seek out ways of increasing justice in the world. To build a community that cares for each other. To try and understand what small part we play in these divine actions.
From our limited perspectives we cannot ever know what our full purpose is. It’s hard enough to see through our own eyes with the world the way it is, let alone through Heaven’s eyes. But that’s precisely why it’s so important. To try and consider the divine perspective around us. To see the full picture as we hope God does.
When we view something in our narrow bandwidth, we miss so much of what is right there in front of us. Watching a world class golfer in person but on a 5-inch screen, or visiting a natural wonder but seeing it the way you would on YouTube. How much of the picture, how much of the world are we missing? Instead, if we widen our view, we can enhance our perspectives on us, on the world, and on God.
“So how do you measure the worth of a man
in wealth or strength or size,
in how much he gained or how much he gave,
the answer will come to him who tries
to look at his life through heaven’s eyes.”
May this year of 5779 be a year filled with justice, modesty, and goodness, and a year in which we see through heaven’s eyes.