Torah from Around the World #148

By: Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Vice
President, Philanthropy,

World Union for Progressive Judaism

“Seeing Holiness”

In 1938, one of my favorite poets, William
Butler Yeats, was presented with a gift. The gift was a sculpture of three
Chinese monks carved out of deep-blue lapis lazuli stone. Contemplating the
sculpture at length, he composed his poem, entitled

Lapis Lazuli

In the last two stanzas he writes:

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,

Are carved in lapis lazuli,

Over them flies a long-legged bird,

A symbol of longevity;

The third, doubtless a serving-man,

a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,

Every accidental crack or dent,

Seems a water-course or an avalanche,

Or lofty slope where it still snows

Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch

Sweetens the little half-way house

Those Chinamen climb towards, and I

Delight to imagine them seated there;

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

In the frozen scene, Yeats sees life – while
the sculpture captures a fleeting moment in time, the story plays out – the
story could fill tomes. And he sees the sparkling eyes of the sculpture’s
subjects – through their eyes he sees what the monks see: the tragedies of
life, and yet their eyes are knowing, and ultimately, hopeful.

With Yeats’ keen vision, he gives life to the
monks – inanimate objects come to life – and through their life and experience,
Keats gains a new perspective. It is Yeats’ vision that begins this special

In like manner, we learn from our parasha
that Moses has a special kind of vision.  Passing a mundane desert plant,
Moses sees, but doesn’t really see – out of the bush he hears a Divine voice
calling him – he turns back and then he really sees. This once pathetic bush
becomes a holy sight. It is so holy that he must remove his shoes, as he
recognizes that he is standing on holy ground. Once his vision is attuned, he
is able to sense God’s presence and the true relationship that forges Moses
leadership of our people is ignited. Holy dialogue ensues from holy vision.

In my first year of rabbinic studies at
HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, we were privileged to travel to the Sinai desert (in
1979, the year that it was turned over to Egypt to create peace). The day we
arrived at Santa Katarina (Saint Catherine’s Monastery), the monastery at the
foot of Mount Sinai, one of the monks took us on a tour of the ancient place.
We looked in rooms, saw the reliquary (where relics of past monks were stored –
clearly not a Jewish tradition) and as we were walking down an uncovered
corridor, we turned a corner, and the guide pointed to an almost dead plant
(similar to every ficus tree I ever tried to keep indoors, with falling leaves,
and consisting mostly of bare branches), and he declared, “That was the burning
bush.” Every one of my classmates broke out into long and hearty laughter.
Later that day near sunset, I returned to the place alone and contemplated this
plant. Why couldn’t it be the burning bush? It really just depends on how we
look at it. And there I felt that I, too, was standing on holy ground, with the
shadow of Sinai slowly creeping over me.

As a rabbi, one of the blessings that I
receive is being invited to officiate at a couple’s wedding ceremony. But
according to Jewish law, there is nothing that I do or say that makes the
couple “married”; I am simply a “

mesadaer kiddushin

” (one who sees that
the event occurs according to Jewish law). What makes the couple married is a
declaration: “

Haray At (ata) Mikudeshet (mikudash) li… Behold, you are made
holy in my eyes…

”  What this means is that one says to the other,
“No-one in my life will I look at, the way I look at you; dream about, the way
I dream about you; touch, in the way I touch you….  There are other
people, and then there is you, elevated above all others – made holy in my
life.” The couple makes themselves married by the way that they look at each
other – by seeing the other as holy.

It is often difficult to see holiness:
tragedy and sadness are also filtered through our eyes and we can become inured
to life’s holy qualities. But we can create holiness with our eyes, though an
act of will.

Yeats saw holiness in a carved blue stone.
Moses saw holiness in a bush. I saw holiness at a monastery in the desert. And
couples find holiness under a huppah as they begin a new chapter in their lives

Holiness exists all around us – we need only
open our eyes and really see.

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