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Believing is Seeing

Rosh HaShanah 5776 / 14-15 September 2015

September 16, 2015

Last summer, Chicago’s Art Institute exhibited a major retrospective of work by the Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte. Magritte, who also worked as an illustrator for advertising agencies, employed a crisp, hyper-realistic style but distorted his images in odd, often disturbing ways. He’s definitely not for everyone, but I have always loved Magritte’s style and vision, and whenever I visit a new museum with a collection of Modern art, I go looking for his work. When the first ads for the Art Institute retrospective appeared on buses around the city, I couldn’t wait to go.

The exhibit did not disappoint. There were hundreds of pieces, including some of his most famous paintings, alongside rarely-exhibited early works. But one painting captured my attention and imagination most of all; I spent nearly half my time in front of this one picture.

Clairvoyance,” from 1936, appearclairvoyance-self-portrait-1936(1)s at first glance to be the kind of artist’s working self-portrait that even predates the Enlightenment.[1] We see Magritte — dapper as ever in a dark suit, crisp white shirt cuffs, hair neatly parted — seated at an easel painting a gray bird in flight. As we follow the artist’s gaze, however, we find something startling: his eyes are focused not on the painting, but on an egg sitting atop the table next to him. The mise en scène suggests a still life, but the image on the canvas looks nothing like the object on the table. On the other hand, we can not suggest that the artist paints from his imagination when his attention is so fixed on the egg. In classic Surrealist fashion, we are left to conclude that the artist is somehow studying the egg in order to know how to portray the bird. The title, “Clairvoyance,” from the French for “clear vision,” suggests the artist’s ability to see in the egg a present-day manifestation of all that the egg might one day become. The artist’s clarity of vision allows him to see beyond simple appearances and understand the deeper significance; the egg is not an egg at all, but a bird waiting to happen.

What does this “clear vision” look like in real life? It looks like a 26-year-old woman, right here in Philadelphia, setting aside a promising corporate career to found a running club for homeless men. Eight years on, Back on My Feet has expanded to ten more cities, helped nearly 2,000 homeless men find jobs, and moved another 1,300 into permanent housing. But in 2007 it seemed ridiculous; founder Anne Mahlum tells of meeting after meeting where friends and potential sponsors told her the idea couldn’t work, that she was wasting her time and making a huge mistake. But as Anne put it, “One person has to say something or do something — the world doesn’t change any other way.” She couldn’t let go of one simple question: what if we could change outcomes for these homeless men by changing how they see themselves? What might become possible if she created a running club that held the men to the same standards of excellence, responsibility, and determination she expected of herself? Back on My Feet became the answer to those questions, and the possibilities Mahlum saw on her morning runs down Vine Street — what seemed impossible just eight years ago — have become reality for thousands of runners, from all sectors of society, across the country.

As difficult as it was for Anne Mahlum to bring her vision to life, the challenge of seeing possibility becomes even more difficult on the international stage; in the face of questions of security and diplomacy, how much impact could any one person have? And yet in 2002, just as the Oslo peace process began to disintegrate, a new youth movement was founded in Jerusalem. In is inagural summer, Kids4Peace brought a few eleven- and twelve-year-olds from Jerusalem and the surrounding towns — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — to America for a few weeks of summer camp. The kids met periodically through the Spring, learning about one another’s religion and culture, and upon returning home continued meeting and sharing their traditions, customs, and ideas. Since then, Kids4Peace has expanded to six different summer camps around the U.S. and now includes American teenagers from all three faiths. 1,200 young adults from 500 families have come through Kids4Peace programs in the past thirteen years. I have seen their impact first hand: my eldest niece, Michal, now finished with her National Service in Israel, was a camper in 2005, worked as a Jewish advisor to Kids4Peace groups in Jerusalem, and spent several summers as a counselor in Vermont. Michal told me that her time with Kids4Peace taught her: 

to dare to build friendships with people who are different from us, a different religion, skin color, and even a different culture from within our own religion… Kids for Peace’s methodology… is that if I am friends with this person, if I care about this person, if I love this person, then I need to learn how to hold that love together with the other things like difference in belief, religion, and culture.[2]

The Kids4Peace blog is filled with stories like hers from Israeli, Palestinian, and American teenagers, of all three religions, demonstrating how profoundly life-changing the experience has been for them.

I wish the story could go on from here, to describe how summer camps and interfaith dialogue led to reconciliation, understanding and peace. But you read the same headlines that I read, and no one would fault us for seeing Kids4Peace as a well-intentioned but ultimately futile gesture. And yet Dr. Yakir Englander, an Israeli philosophy professor whose work with Kids4Peace earned him Israel’s Shosh Berlinsky-Sheinfeld Award for the researcher making the greatest contribution to Israeli society, holds out a different vision of how grassroots peace organizing changes the Israeli landscape:

As an organization, “Kids4Peace” may not offer new and unheard of solutions to the conflict we are stuck in. It does, however, create a new culture with different questions… a language that seeks different answers…  We in “Kids4Peace” believe, that here in Jerusalem, of all places, in a city everyone fights over, a city that seems sometimes to be an obstacle to peace, that here, we have the ability to do things differently. We refuse to abandon the prayer and the dream.[3]

In a social and political climate characterized by all-or-nothing positions, Englander insists that for true peacemakers, “Credibility is not earned by being ‘right,’ but by becoming more humble and more open.”[4] The children and young adults working with Kids4Peace are Englander’s version of Magritte’s egg: here in the present day, but representative of a very different future.

Clear vision. Believing in others even when society has written them off. Responding to conflict with humility, love, and an open hand. Stories like these and countless others throughout history inspired our Sages to teach, “איזהו חכם? הרואה את הנולד; Who is wise? One who sees what is becoming.”[5] The term נולד, which I have translated as “what is becoming,” literally means “born;” it originates in a Talmudic discussion of the status of eggs laid on Shabbat, and was later extended to describe “anything that did not exist yesterday and came into being today,”[6] including new, unprecedented situations.[7] Wisdom, in our tradition, does not depend on sharp wit, cunning, or a skilled tongue; instead, wisdom reveals itself in a person’s ability to see, understand, and adapt to evolving circumstances — social realities that did not exist yesterday but now unfold before our eyes.

In their choices of Torah and haftarah readings for Rosh HaShanah, our Rabbis of Blessed Memory hid this message in plain sight. The stories we read today offer numerous examples of people who failed to see, who missed opportunities for growth because they couldn’t see the full extent of what was possible. Their lack of vision challenges us to assess our own blind spots and seek greater wisdom, clearer vision.

The most obvious example comes from Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, in the Torah reading for the first day.[8] Banished from the household, out of water, Hagar is convinced that she and her young son will not make it. She sends Ishmael to sit under a shrub, thinking to herself, “At least I won’t need to watch him die.”[9] At precisely that moment, וַיִּפְקַח אֱ־לֹהִים אֶת־עֵינֶיהָ וַתֵּרֶא בְּאֵר מָיִם, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”[10] Where did this well come from? One could read this as another case of God’s miraculous deliverance, creating a well in the midst of the desert to save Hagar and Ishmael; but the words here point us in a different, more challenging direction. The Bible is indeed replete with stories in which God works miracles for our ancestors: splitting the Red Sea so the Israelites can pass;[11] raining down manna in the desert;[12] calling into being, as we will read next week in the book of Jonah, a leafy vine to give the wayward prophet some shade.[13] But in all of those instances, the miracle comes from a definite action described in the text. Here, God’s activity has nothing to do with the well; rather, God “opened her eyes,” suggesting to us that the well had in fact been in front of Hagar all the time. Hagar — abused, betrayed, cast out — didn’t believe salvation was possible, and couldn’t see the well until her eyes were opened to new possibilities.

1280px-Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)-1The second day’s Torah reading[14] presents us with the same dilemma: Abraham has his son and heir bound on an altar, about to slash his neck, when an angel suddenly intercedes and points out a ram caught in a nearby thicket — which somehow has escaped Abraham’s attention this whole time! Caravaggio’s painting “The Sacrifice of Isaac[15] captures the absurdity of this picture, as Abraham attempts to wrest his knife hand from the angel’s grip while his other hand holds down a screaming, struggling Isaac — and in the midst of this ruckus, practically cheek-to-cheek with Isaac, stands a bored-looking ram, stoically taking in the chaos around him.

I don’t have a lot of experience with rams, but I suspect that “a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns,”[16] would probably thrash around quite a bit, even without all the human drama unfolding nearby. Sure, we could always say God created the ram right in that moment, but again if that were the case why wouldn’t the Torah say so? And why entangle a newly-created ram in a thicket? God could just create it, standing there next to the altar, as Caravaggio had it.

Like Hagar, Abraham couldn’t see what he didn’t believe was possible. From Abraham’s perspective, God gave him a son, God wanted to take that son away, and the only available options were obedience or rebellion. Commentators have debated for millennia the nature of the trial Abraham faces here, and whether he passed or failed; perhaps the true test here was not one of blind obedience or moral courage, but God’s attempting to find out if Abraham had the wisdom to see a third way.

In essence Abraham views his situation as a zero-sum game: obey God and lose his son, or save his son but rebel against God. And yet in the end, even the substitute offering comes not from Abraham’s flock but as a windfall. Could we imagine a different scenario in which Abraham might have approached God in prayer, searching for other possibilities? What clues did Abraham miss that could have drawn him in a different direction altogether? Abraham’s all-or-nothing approach nearly cost him everything; only God’s timely intervention prevents catastrophe.

The haftarah for the first day[17] addresses the very same issues: we find two rival wives, Hannah and Peninah, locked in competition for their husband’s affections. For Hannah and Peninah, as with Sarah and Hagar, life is a zero-sum game, to the extent that one particularly disturbing midrash imagines that for every child born to Hannah, two of Peninah’s would die.[18] Even without this midrash, the text is troubling enough, describing how Peninah would torment Hannah by constantly reminding her of her infertility.[19] 

Research demonstrates that hope depends on our ability to see multiple pathways toward achieving our goals[20] — so a zero-sum mentality becomes toxic because it restricts the options available to us. Last week I had the opportunity to ask Yakir Englander about his work on peace and reconciliation, and he underscored this point: “I don’t know what ‘peace’ looks like from a political point of view… All the answers we have now come from a place of conflict and hate, from a place of ‘how do I get the best deal at the expense of the other.’ It is a zero-sum fight. This kind of talking will not bring any solution to the problem.”[21]

But Hannah makes a choice that takes her story in a different direction: rather than using Elkanah’s love for her as a weapon against Peninah, she turns to God, pouring her soul out before the Master of the World.[22] In looking toward God, Hannah reaches for the one being who is ever-capable of expanding the boundaries of what is possible. In order to escape the cycle of competition and bitterness that had grown between her and Peninah, Hannah needed to understand that the past may shape the contours of the present, but it need not define the future. She began to see when she opened her soul and her sadness to God, pleading for the wisdom to find another way.

While the haftarah for the second day[23] might initially appear more abstract, within Jeremiah’s poetry we see the same themes developing. The haftarah’s emotional peak, like that of the first day’s haftarah, centers on a maternal figure who has lost all hope: קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע… רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ, “A cry is heard in Ramah — wailing, bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone.”[24] Rachel — of all our matriarchs, the one most likely to feel resigned to her fate — sees Israel lying in ruins, the Jewish people in exile, and believes her children lost forever. She can’t be consoled because she can’t see a future for a nation deprived of its homeland and scattered to the four corners of the earth.

God’s response to Rachel is powerful but also difficult: מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה, “restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears.”[25] Rachel’s eyes are literally clouded by her tears; she sees only the present destruction and can not envision what an alternative future might look like for her People.

Rachel cries for what is, but God consoles her by pointing to what could become: וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָה לְאַֽחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָֽם, “There is hope for your future — declares the Lord — your children shall return to their country.”[26] In response to Rachel’s despair, God offers תִּקְוָה, hope: the simultaneous desire and belief that tomorrow can and will be better than today.

Seth Godin, whose ideas about change and exploration have profoundly influenced me, writes that “The difficult part of seeing is setting aside what you’re sure you already know.”[27] Because Sarah knows that her son and Hagar’s can’t get along together, and Hagar knows that there are no wells in the desert. Hannah knows that she is doomed to bitterness, and Peninah knows she’ll always come second in Elkanah’s heart. Eli, the High Priest, knows that a woman mumbling and crying in the Temple must be drunk. Abraham knows that there’s no option but to slaughter Isaac, no animal in the special place God shows him that might stand as a substitute. Rachel watches her children led into exile and captivity and knows they’re lost forever.

Here’s what we know, after reading these stories in the Torah and haftarah: all of them, every last one of the characters in these stories, were wrong. God opens Rachel’s eyes, “There is hope for your future — declares the Lord,”[28] and indeed one look around this room shows that the Jewish people isn’t lost forever; we’re stronger, healthier, with a brighter future, than ever before. There was a ram caught in the thicket.There were prayers that opened a bitter woman’s heart, expanded her horizons and helped move her through a difficult time. There was a well in the desert. These stories teach us what Anne Mahlum learned from her running partners: “Our current identities can rob us of our hopes and dreams.” Every one of us has a well we can’t see in the desert, a ram we don’t notice in the thicket. The Sages who chose these readings for Rosh HaShanah put one burning question in front of you today: what can’t you see because you’re sure you already know the answer? 

I want to acknowledge that opening ourselves to this kind of hope, seeing future potential and possibility in present events, can be frightening. The more we invest in our hopes and dreams, the more we make ourselves vulnerable — and the more we risk disappointment, or worse. When Anne Mahlum gave up a secure corporate job to found Back on My Feet, she had to face the risk  that she might fail, end up back at square one. For Yakir Englander and Kids4Peace, the stakes could be even higher; and yet, as Englander notes, avoiding the risk means forfeiting the possibility of real change:

Educating children and youth not to hate and fear is risky. If the conflict is not solved in the coming years, Kids4Peace will have essentially created a new generation of [Israeli] young adults without a psychological shield to protect their future… Perhaps too, we are creating a generation of Palestinians who will be humiliated again and again, without the protection of their common narrative that says they should hate Israelis…

So why do I serve as the leader of a youth peace movement? I do it because these risks that I mentioned are precisely the tools that can be the foundation for a new generation: not only ready to end the conflict, but to work towards serious reconciliation. These youth and their leaders do not just give first aid. They are the doctors who will heal the root causes of the illness.[29]

For Anne Mahlum, the specter of failure mattered less than the question, “What if it actually works?” Psychologist C. R. Snyder emphasizes that hope, by definition, points us toward goals that are possible, but not certain; and willpower, another necessary component of hope, comes from facing, not avoiding, life’s difficult challenges.[30] When I asked Yakir Englander how a person can learn to see possibilities that conventional society overlooks, he replied with a teaching of the Hasidic Rabbi Zvi Hirsch of Ziditchov: “‘Humans are not angels; we don’t get orders from God and do them…’ This is why the angels don’t need the Torah: they can’t choose, so they don’t need a guide book.”[31] Because we can choose, we need the Torah’s moral guidance — and we need hope to keep pulling us back toward the right choices.

Rosh HaShanah asks us to hope, and hope begins when we set specific, detailed goals.[32] What do you want most in the coming year: Strength, blessing, health, sustenance, life? Take your pick, but pick something. Set some goals. Look for possibility. Have the courage to hope. See your נולד, your new, becoming, unfolding reality.

Rosh HaShanah puts these questions before us, but it’s up to us to develop the answers. Be bold. Dare. Risk. Have courage. Find your well in the desert, your ram in the thicket. See the נולד, the possibility waiting to become reality.

שנה טובה ומטוקה, may it be a good, sweet year for all of us.

[1] See, e.g., the illuminated manuscript of Brother Rufillus (12th century) in Five Hundred Self-Portraits (London: Phaidon, 2000), 14.
[2]  Michal Ner-David, personal communication, 8 Sept. 2015.
[3]  Yakir Englander, Shosh Berlinsky-Sheinfeld Award Acceptance Speech (tr. Henry R. Carse), 14 June 2011.
[4] Englander, “On the Danger of Peace Work,” Huffington Post 23 June 2015.
[5] Babylonian Talmud, Tamid 32a.
[6] Rabbenu Hanannel, Beitzah 2a: “נולד פי’ כל דבר שלא היה מאתמול ונעשה היום נקרא נולד
[7] See Adin Steinsaltz, The Talmud: A Reference Guide, 228; Yosef Schechter, Otzar HaTalmud, 268.
[8] Gen. 21:1-34.
[9] Gen. 21:16.
[10] Gen. 21:19.
[11] Ex. 14:15-31.
[12] Ex. 16:11-14.
[13] Jonah 4:5-6.
[14] Gen. 22:1-24.
[15] Two paintings with this title are attributed to Caravaggio; my comments here refer to the second version, in the Uffizi collection.
[16] Gen. 22:13.
[17] I Samuel 1:1-2:10.
[18] Pesikta Rabbati 43; see Tamar Kadari, “Peninnah: Midrash and Aggadah.”

“ד”א הלא אנכי טוב לך מעשרה בנים אילו עשרה בנים של פנינה, לא עשה אלא כשבא לפקוד את חנה היתה חנה יולדת בן אחד ופנינה קוברת שני בנים, ילדה חנה ארבעה ופנינה קוברת שמונה, והיתה חנה מעוברת בן חמישי, ונתייראה פנינה שלא תקבור שני בניה שנשתיירו לה, מה עשתה פנינה, הלכה ובקשה מן חנה, אמרה לה בבקשה ממך נעניתי לך, יודעת אני שחטאתי לך אלא וותר לי כדי שיחיו שני בני שנשתיירו לי, באותה השעה נתפללה חנה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, אמרה לפניו וותר לה את שני בניה שיחיו, אמר לה הקדוש ברוך הוא חייך שהיו ראויים למות אלא הואיל שנתפללת עליהם שיחיו לשמך אני קורא אותם, לפיכך הוא אומר עד עקרה ילדה שבעה שנתחשבו לה שני בנים של פנינה.” [פסיקתא רבתי (איש שלום) פיסקא מג – כי פקד ה’ את חנה]

[19] 1 Samuel 1:6-7; several midrashim (cited by Kadari, see previous note) elaborate on Peninah’s cruelty.
[20]  C. R. Snyder, The Psychology of Hope (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 8-10.
[21] Englander, personal communication, 10 Sept. 2015.
[22] 1 Samuel 1:9-16.
[23] Jeremiah 31:2-20.
[24] Jeremiah 31:15.
[25] Jeremiah 31:16.
[26] Jeremiah 31:17.
[27] Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception (New York: Penguin, 2012), 147.
[28] Jeremiah 31:16.
[29] Englander, “Looking Beyond the ‘Safety’ of the Hate Narrative,”Islami Commentary, 18 July 2014.
[30] Snyder, Psychology of Hope, 6-7.
[31] Englander, personal communication.
[32] Snyder, Psychology of Hope, 212-214.

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