Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Rabbi, legal mediator, advocate

Believing is Seeing

Rembrandt van Rijn, 1645, “Abraham and Isaac”

There is a Hebrew expression that goes far beyond the hope for a Shanah Tovah. It is “May the old year with its troubles end. Let the new year, with blessings, begin”. So many of us hope that this will be the case for us, as individuals and families, for our congregations and communities, for our countries and the world.

Even with 2020 eyesight, none of us could have anticipated the past year. But I want to suggest a vision for 5781 based on recent research in neuro-optics. Although every eye has a blind spot near the center of the visual field, the mind’s eye does not know its own gap. In the middle of our universe is a hole which the eye/brain duet transforms into a full image. The eye also transmits upside down images, which the brain turns 180 degrees, situating the external world upright, solid and safe, one in which we can stand with certainty. You see, believing is seeing. What we think controls our perceptions.

Other studies indicate that our brains create mental models which determine what we see and want. If you are grieving, you see many others who are sad. If you are in love, you see the world in a positive way. What we value comes to flood our vision. We see what we believe.

A key word for the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading is the Hebrew root word R-E-H, see. Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber taught us that “leading words,” leitwörter, build “arcs of significant repetition.” The repeated occurrence of a root word lends added depth to what we read.

ר-א-ה, seeing or vision, plays a role in both Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah.  Initially, Sarah sees Hagar’s son laughing, perhaps in mockingly, and insists that the Egyptian slave-woman be banished with Avraham’s first-born son, to protect Yitzhak, the true heir. Hagar becomes a fugitive, fleeing to the wilderness.

In that uncertain and fearful place, Hagar despairs. She says, let me not see the child die. She is encouraged my an angel-messenger and told not to fear, not to lose sight, to take the child by the hand. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a spring of water. The child is saved and receives a divine promise that he will become a great nation. And Hagar “called the Eternal One who spoke to her, You are El-Ro’i. God who sees me.”

Avraham will be called to take Yitzhak to the mountain that God will have him see. After the boy is bound on the altar,  an angel-messenger tells Avraham to stop, “do nothing to the boy, for I know that you see me with awe.” Only then does Avraham see a ram, which will become the sacrifice. Avraham called that mountain Moriah, the place where God sees. In turn, he will be promised that his descendants will be innumerable and, later, told to see the stars. In both narratives, Hagar and Avraham must open their eyes to see new possibilities, new opportunities, new realities. Only when they believe can they see.

Many of us have spent the past 6 months looking at screens. Many of us have had limited occasions to see and embrace family. Many have not seen their classrooms or offices. The Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah call us to look to the New Year with hope and vision. We don’t know what is before us, but we are called to believe that, like Hagar, we need not fear, we need not lose sight of one another. Instead, we are called to take each other by the hand — really or virtually — and to go forward with hope that God will be with us.

In his play, Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw has the serpent in the Garden say to Eve, “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’” The snake slyly suggested the subversion of society.  But a different belief can fill that black hole and reset the world. The American political leader, Robert Kennedy, transformed the lines from Shaw into a statement of hope and aspiration: “Some see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.”

This Rosh Hashanah, more than many others of the past, we are called to fill the blind spot of our vision, to reverse an upside down world.  We are called to dream, to hope and to aspire. Remember, believing is seeing. Let us believe that in this New Year we will see hesed, care and compassion, concern and cooperation. And then let us build that world.

About the Author
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Ontario, after having served for 26 years as the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbi. Born in Milwaukee and raised in Chicago, Rav Baruch previously served Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. He has a doctorate in philosophies of Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a LLM degree in Dispute Resolution from Osgoode Law School of York University, and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus.
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