By Rabbi Shohama
Shanah Tovah, everyone. How do we see our lives and how are we seen by others and by God? The great French writer, Marcel Proust, wrote this: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” How do we get new eyes, and more importantly, how do the eyes we seek reflect a holy vision of what is, what was, and what could be?
Perhaps the most important aspect of vision is the now. How can we stay present to the given moment, so that we see the goodness in what is? In our Torah reading Hagar is sent into the desert with her son Ishmael, and few provisions, just some bread and a flask of water. The desert is hot and dry and their meager water supply is soon finished. In panic, Hagar closes off her wider vision, casts the child under a bush and walks away, saying “I cannot see the boy dying.”
Then God opens her eyes, and she sees a well of water, a well that had been there all along. How often do we sit in our fear and worry, and not see the goodness and the support that is around us? As this year’s theme song from Psalm 27 says, Lulei he’emanti b’tuv Adonai. What if I fully believed — to see the goodness of God?
Let me qualify that to say it is not necessary to believe in God to believe in goodness. Often our vision and attitude are clouded by only seeing the challenges and hardships in our lives. The psychologist Dr. Wayne Dyer’s book, You’ll See It When You Believe It, offers examples of lives changing when people were able to see that their lives were essentially good. Yes, there are times when anger or grief are overwhelming, but life offers daily opportunities for seeing its gifts.
Sometimes it takes seeing ourselves through another’s eyes to see ourselves more clearly. This is a big reason why the concept of teshuvah as forgiveness is so important. No relationships can be totally smooth; to live peacefully with another requires honesty and humility. Saying “I’m sorry,” will often open another’s eyes to the essential goodness in us, and allow for repair.
How does this connect to our Torah reading this morning? Every year on the first day of Rosh Hashanah we read about Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael behaving unkindly, and every year I am disturbed by their behavior. This year it occurred to me that we read these stories precisely because they are a poor example of family dynamics, where there is no teshuvah, and no appreciation of the other. The jealousies described happen in many families, and are understandable, but are examples of what not to imitate. This Torah reading, at this time of the New Year, is a call for us to see more clearly where we are off the mark in our relationships, and how we can improve the course of our life by making changes in what we believe and how we see.
What would have happened if Hagar and Sarah had instead expressed appreciation for each other? If Ishmael had been a kind and generous big brother to Isaac? Jewish tradition teaches that it is a holy practice to express gratitude. In Hebrew it is called hakarat hatov. Complimenting and appreciating others not only helps others see themselves more positively, and strengthens relationships, it trains us see the good more clearly. It opens the window to teshuvah, forgiveness, when we can see through another’s eyes and see the good in them.
This Holy Day, Rosh Hashanah, calls us to remember that God is also seeing us, and, we pray, appreciating us with all our strengths and our weaknesses. Ro-eh is to see, and a ro-ih is a shepherd, one who sees his or her flock. Like the shepherd, God sees when we are on a good path, and when we stray, God sees that too, and reaches out to help us come back. For those for whom God is not a comfortable word, substitute the word conscience. Our conscience, God within, sees and knows all that we are.
Seeing the present moment with awareness of appreciation and blessings is a holy path, but seeing with eyes to the past and the future gives us appreciation for what we have been given and a vision of what we might contribute to the future. Knowing our history gives us a vision of our roots, and our place in the evolution of the universe. Why did our Mother Sarah insist that Isaac be the son to inherit from Abraham, even though he was the second born? I don’t believe it was just because he was her biological son. In those days, the oldest son was supposed to get the biggest blessing. A number of rabbinic Torah commentators said that Sarah was a seer, a see-er—after the conflict with Hagar she could see that it was through Isaac that the Jewish people would be birthed. Abraham’s descendants through Isaac would be numerous like the grains of sand on the earth and the stars in the sky, and be a blessing to the world, as God had promised.
Today is a day for reckoning and a time to look to our future. A day to ask, “Why am I here,” and “what am I going to do about that?” One of my favorite stories from the Babylonian Talmud is about Honi the Circle Maker. One day Honi was walking on the road and saw an older man planting a carob tree. He asked, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?
“Seventy years,” replied the man.
Honi then asked,” And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
“Perhaps not,” said the man. “But when I was born, I found many carob trees planted by my parents and grandparents. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
Let us ask, “what is the tree I am planting for the future, if not for my biological family, then for the future generations of my community and the planet on which we are all linked?”
Some kinds of teshuvah are huge, and yet not impossible. When real teshuvah is made enemies can see themselves as families rather than adversaries. We were mortal enemies with Japan in World War II and now we are allies. In my husband Alan’s family, his young cousin married a woman from Japan and they have a son who attends both a Jewish preschool and a Japanese language and culture class. Her parents and the rest of her family still live in Japan. Both the American and Japanese families not only accept this marriage but are delighted to see each other when one visits the other.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Holy One created teshuvah so that the world could continue. Teshuvah is not just a change in seeing; it requires action. There are many issues that rock our world today. Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers (2:21) teaches, you are not required to complete the task, nor are you free from trying. Lo alecha hamlachah ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hitabeil mimena.
We may not be able to change the larger issues on our own, but every action towards peace sends vibrations far and wide. Jewish ethical tradition wisely teaches that if we apologize three times and our apology is not accepted, we are released from trying. Note that we are asked to try three times—an enormous challenge requiring strong spiritual muscles. We– or they– may not see clearly the first time. The other person may not believe our sincerity, but repetition is a demonstration of serious intention. Of course, forgiving does not mean putting ourselves at risk for harm. Forgiving means letting go of our anger and being open to seeing the other with new eyes. Seeing differently is connected to feeling differently and acting differently.
We are given ten days between now and Yom Kippur, ten days to ponder and to make teshuvah. How can we see more deeply where our blind spots are? First, we must open our inner eyes to see how we may be at least partly responsible for what we’ve been blaming on others. Anavah, humility, is considered one of Judaism’s highest moral qualities. One of the best ways to clear our spiritual vision is to talk aloud—to God, or our Highest Self, or to another person who will reflect back to us kindly and wisely what s/he sees. Another is to journal on paper, to see the words we have written, and to put that paper under our pillow at night. Often insight (in-sight, understanding as seeing within) will come the next day.
From now through Yom Kippur we have the chance to set a course to begin anew and to take a higher path on our journey. With God’s help and the support of this wonderful community, let us see a better way forward, that for each of us it may truly be a way forward. In expanding our vision we will partner with God in making this New Year a Shanah Tovah, a good new year.
Please join me saying, “Amen!”