by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Vice President, Philanthropy,
World Union for Progressive Judaism
My beloved wife and I have been blessed with three children. Our youngest, Zach, is just about to begin his college studies, but I still remember holding him in the days of his infancy and as an infant, Zachary, had many lessons to teach.
In the first days of his life, even when he was only six weeks old, when he would look at me, he would not look at my eyes, but at the top of my head. I first wondered if he was taking note of his father’s receding hairline. But then I realized that all he saw was light and dark — his way of looking at me was to see the outline of my face against my hair and beard.
For those of you more distant from the joys of parenthood or grandparenthood, you should know that the most modern crib-toys are toys in black and white. Gone are the days when baby toys were painted in primary colors, or pastel colors. The doctors now tell us that babies can’t see the colors until they are much older.
I learned that in time, Zachary would be able to see colors. Months later, his eyes began to follow objects that enticed and delighted him. Over time his eyes were capable of seeing images exploding with color, dazzling sights danced before his eyes. And then he needed us to teach him the difference between the things that delighted his eyes and are good for him, and those that dazzle but could harm him. He needed us to teach him to discern with his eyes good from bad, healthful from harmful, playful from painful.
Zachary’s lesson to us in those days of his infancy was that we all come into the world able to see light from dark; but, as time goes on, we need help to learn to see good and bad.
Our Biblical antecedents knew this. In the book of Deuteronomy, there is an entire
devoted to a lesson on seeing. It is called
. The first word of the
is the command form of the verb ‘to see.’
— Look! See! The command is in the singular — it is a direct command to each one of us individually. Use your eyes! Open them up, and see!
The text then continues to teach us that there are two types of vision: mundane or normal vision and holy vision. The Children of Israel are poised on the banks of the Jordan, receiving their final instructions before they cross over into the Promised Land. Moses tells the people, “You shall not act there as we now act here, every person as he or she pleases.” But it is the Hebrew text that truly reveals the lesson, for the second clause of the sentence is “…
eesh kol hayashar b’aynav
— literally, “don’t do what is right before your eyes.” Don’t do what looks good — do what is right. This is our mundane vision — our normal vision — the things we see before us every day. What is it that we see? We see television violence; we see people treating other people inhumanely; we see degradation; we see greed; we see avarice; we see heartlessness. And sometimes, it is enticing — sometimes, it is seductive. But the text calls out — don’t do the things you see — do what is right.
The text of
continues, “Be careful to heed all these commandments which I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Eternal God.” It is here that we get a glimpse of holy vision — doing what is right in the sight of God is acting on vision that is worthy of God. It is this kind of vision that must be taught — this kind of vision must be learned. As a parent instructs a child in the way to see the world, God instructs us in holy vision.
Moses, a young man, fresh from his days of supervising slaves, takes on the new task of tending his father-in-law’s sheep. There in the wilderness, he hears the call of heaven. An angel calls to him from a burning bush. Moses says to himself, “I must turn aside to see this marvelous sight.” When God saw that Moses turned his head away, trying to see but not to see (as any of us would do when we passed by a gory accident, we want to see but we don’t want to see) God called out, “Moses! Moses! Take off your sandals for the ground upon which you stand is holy ground.” God must tell Moses that he is in the presence of holiness — he does not see it himself. He must be instructed.
Holiness is the way we see things. Holiness is conveyed to the world by the way that we look at the world. The couple under the huppah are not made holy by a rabbi — they look at each other as holy, as elevated, set apart, unique. We bring holiness to our world when we see things as special. But we must be taught this kind of vision. Star-crossed lovers are infatuated, lustful, desiring and desired. But when they begin to see the whole person, rather than an object of their lust — when they see the dreams and aspirations of the person, rather than the immediate need — when they see beyond the beauty and find the inner meaning of the other’s life — then the other becomes holy, and a new vision replaces the mundane way of looking at the world.
The first book of Kings records a profound story of Solomon. He came to the throne as a young child, and yet the text tells us he loved God. We read that God appeared to Solomon in a dream and asked what Solomon wanted most of all. Solomon answered, “You have dealt kindly to my father David, and gave him a son to sit on his throne. I am just a child, no knowing even how to go out or come in. Please give me an understanding heart to judge Your people that I may see the difference between good and evil.” God replied “Because you did not ask for a long life, or great wealth, I will not only give you what you requested, but I will grant you long life and riches as well.” Solomon realized that he needed to be taught holy vision — to see what was right from what was wrong. It was the commandments that imposed the discipline for Solomon to learn to see the world with new and holy eyes.
As we read in Talmud
May your eyes sparkle with the light of Torah,
and your ears hear the music of its words.
May the space between each letter of the scroll
bring warmth and meaning to your soul.
May the syllables draw holiness from your heart,
and may this holiness be gentle and soothing to the world.
May your study be passionate, and meanings bear more meanings
until Life itself arrays itself to you as a dazzling wedding feast.
And may your conversation, even of the commonplace,
be a blessing to all who listen to your words
and see the Torah glowing on your face.