Seeing and Being Seen – Creating Community

This is a sermon I gave this past Shabbat at our congregation. We have two minyanim of people in our larger sanctuary spaces and then Livestream the services to our members at home. Although I refer to our synagogue – Beth Yeshurun – this could easily refer to any synagogue or place of worship.

It is good to see you all here this morning. And it’s good to be seen by you, including those of you whom I can’t see myself because you are watching at home.

Seeing. And being seen. It is a very human need.

Now, of course, I know that there are some people who cannot see. And for them I would translate the verb “seeing” to one or more of the other human senses that they use to recognize the presence of another human being. But I want to talk about “seeing” this morning because that is the word our Torah portion this morning almost literally begins and ends with.

The portion opens with Moses saying to the Israelites, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse. Blessing if you obey the commandments of the LORD … and curse, if you do not obey [them] …” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

And the portion ends with one of the five times[i] that the holidays of the Jewish Calendar are listed. It concludes the list of festivals with these words: “Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths – all your males shall be seen by the LORD in the place that He will choose. They shall not be seen empty-handed, but each with his own gift …” (Deuteronomy 16:16)

I want to talk about this last use of the word “seeing” first.

Three times a year – on the pilgrimage festivals – the Israelites were to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to be seen by God at the Temple. And the Talmud [Hagiga 2a and 4b] suggests a playful second meaning. Because, as we know, the Hebrew in the Torah has no vowels, the words can change meaning if we supply different vowels. The word we read as “to be seen” by God, can also be read as “they will see God” if the vowels are changed. And so, the Talmud suggests, one used to go to the Temple not just to be seen by God, but also to see God, to have an encounter with God.

Of course, we don’t believe that God can literally be seen. “No one can see Me and live” God tells Moses. (Exodus 33:20) But you can imagine the awesome experience our ancestors had when they went up to the Temple Mount and stood in the grand courtyard with all its awesome furnishings, and saw the crowds of people coming to worship, and heard the Levite choir singing Psalms to the accompaniment of the Levite orchestra. They would be bringing a gift to God to say “thank you” for being alive, for the harvest, for friends and family, or for whatever other reasons. What an awesome experience our ancestors must have felt. And no doubt they felt God’s presence there with them. “Seeing,” let’s say, with a spiritual camera lens that captures transcendent waves of luminescence.

So, our ancestors would gather at the Temple to see God and to be seen by God.

We all want to be seen. To be really seen. For exactly who we are, just as we are. To be understood. To be appreciated. To be recognized.

Not just superficially. Not based on the color of our hair or our eyes, or our skin, or our age. Not for the clothes we are wearing. Not for how much money we have – or don’t have – or the size of our house, or the type of car we drive. We want to be seen and understood and appreciated for who we are inside.

The Haftarah that we will read on Rosh Hashanah tells the story of a woman named Hannah who was childless and desperately wanted to have a child. So she went to the shrine dedicated to God in the town of Shiloh and prayed there. She prayed her heart out to God. But though her lips were moving, she did not pray out loud. And the prophet Eli looked at her and thought she was a crazy woman talking to herself. “No,” she told him. “I am not crazy. I am desperate and praying to God from my heart.” And that’s when Eli the prophet saw Hannah for who she really was. He realized his superficial judgment of her, based on her appearance, was in error. Hannah was seen by Eli. And she was seen by God. And God granted her a child who became the great prophet Samuel.

Our ancestors came to the Temple to be seen by God. God, of course, can see through the veneer, the outside appearance, right to our soul. That’s what they came for. And they also came to get a glimpse of God’s presence in their lives and in the world. To sense that “yes” there really is a Creator, and the world is not just a random, chaotic mess. There is meaning and order and purpose. And our Creator has charged us with a purpose in life. And our task is to discover that purpose and fulfill it.

To see and to be seen by our Creator.

But also, to see and be seen by each other. At the very beginning of Genesis we are told that humanity is created in the image of our Creator. In seeing each other we are witnessing, in some sense, God’s presence in our encounter with each other. And thousands and thousands of Israelites crowded onto the Temple mount for the holidays. A throbbing multitude of God’s images. And hopefully, we would be seen, really seen, by at least a few of them. At least a few encounters would entail a mutual exchange of appreciation, affection, and perhaps even love. Maybe seeing a friend or a relative that you hadn’t seen for a long time.

Seeing and being seen. A fundamental human need.

Now, let’s consider the word “seeing” as it appears at the beginning of our Torah portion. “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse: blessing if you obey the commandments of the LORD, … and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD.”

At first, we modern Jews might reasonably ask: is this really how the world works? If I follow the rules, will I really be rewarded but if I break the rules, will I really be punished? That certainly does not appear to be the world we know.

But let’s look at the rules Moses goes on to describe:

First, destroy all the idols and false gods that you see. Do we still idolize some things, or some people today? If so, we are commanded to stop that. Only God, who Created a beautiful world, and demands of us that we preserve and protect it. Only God, who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Only God, deserves our unwavering loyalty.

Second, worship God only in the place that God will choose. Of course, in Biblical times this meant the Temple in Jerusalem. But since the Temple was destroyed we have gathered in synagogues. But even then, worship is not restricted only to synagogues, only to these buildings. The buildings are not inherently sacred, they are holy only when we feel God’s presence in them. And, as our ancestor Jacob realized the night he ran away from home and slept on a rock, the place he slept turned out to be holy because he felt God’s presence there. Nothing special, really, about that place. Any place can be holy when you experience God’s presence there. It becomes a place that God has chosen. (The Temple Mount has, of course, remained a special sacred place for Jews for thousands of years. But in the absence of being able to go there in person, we have found holiness in places all around the world.)

Third, do not follow after false prophets. Prophets who tell you to break the commandments. Prophets who tell you it is OK to lie, to cheat, to steal, to treat other human beings disrespectfully, perhaps because of their race or their religion or their gender. Moses even warns the Israelites against doing this if your friends or relatives tell you it’s okay to do it. It’s not okay to follow false prophets. Even if all your friends or family are doing so.

And finally, if there are poor people in your society – it is your responsibility to help them. Don’t abandon them.

To review: Destroy the false gods you might be tempted to worship. Worship God in a holy space. Do not follow false prophets who turn you away from doing what is right. And take care of the poor among you.

What do all these things have in common? What do they have in common with the conclusion of our Torah portion where the verb “to see” is used again?

If we follow these rules, we will create a society that cares for each other. We will support those in need. We will comfort those who are distraught. We will find ways to help those who have lost their jobs, who can’t pay their rent, or put food on their tables.

If we follow these rules, we will experience God’s presence in our lives, especially in the holy spaces that we create for that purpose.  But we can also experience God’s presence in our everyday activities if we – like our ancestor Jacob – can wake up each morning and say: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16) We can even experience God’s presence from our homes, connecting with each other over the internet to pray to together. Creating a virtual “holy space” through technology.

If we follow the rules Moses gave us, we will not be led astray to do harm to others, to be thoughtless and cruel, to promote prejudice and bigotry against others. But rather, we will work together to foster kindness and compassion, justice and equity in our city, in our State and in our country.

What we cannot do right now, at least not safely, is gather here together in large numbers in the sacred space we call Beth Yeshurun, in this building. It is good to see those of you who are here this morning, and I wish I could see all of you watching at home.

To see and to be seen is such a powerful human desire. But we will one day return to our building. The prophets promised a return from the Babylonian Exile, a return to our home in Israel. And we did indeed return from that Exile. And we returned again to our homeland in the 20th Century. And so too we will return to our home here in Beth Yeshurun.

But in the meantime, even though we cannot see and be seen together in this space right now, we can at least connect with each other through modern technology, such as this Livestreamed service. Thank God we live in this generation when such technology exists.

Even though we cannot be together physically – and especially since we cannot be together physically – we yearn to reach out with whatever means we have available and connect with each other. At times like this, “community” is even more important. More important for our emotional, our spiritual, and our mental health.

Congregation Beth Yeshurun is our spiritual home. But it’s not about the building. It’s about us. It’s about helping each other in times of need. It’s about organizing to help others in Houston. It’s about enriching our lives with Jewish wisdom. It’s about connecting to God. It’s about connecting with each other. It is about seeing, and being seen.

[i] Exodus 23, Exodus 34, Leviticus 23, Numbers 28-29, Deuteronomy 16

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.
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