I am presently in Jerusalem studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute where I am once again participating in its annual conference. I feel privileged to return to this place year after year to recharge my spiritual batteries and reacquaint myself with the tradition I so love. I am surrounded by colleagues who share my love of learning, debate and even argument, as well as devotion to Israel. I remain grateful to my congregation and its leadership for allowing me this time for rejuvenation.
Given this yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I realize that for the past fifteen years I have only observed July 4th from afar. Every year I have found myself here in Jerusalem for July 4th. I have also by the way marked Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, in May while at home on Long Island. It occurs to me that these days look far different from a distance. I cannot of course see the fireworks from here, but I wonder is it possible that the miracles of Israel and the United States shimmer more brightly from afar? From this distance, I only see successes rather than struggles. When nearby the flames appear far more intense, and perhaps even frightening. From afar I tend only to see the glow.
Balaam looked out at Israel and rather than curse the Jewish people as his king had commanded him, offered words of blessing: “Mah tovu…How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24) These are the words with which we begin our morning prayers. Balaam is not a Jew. Moreover he is a Moabite, an enemy of ancient Israel. Could anyone be more distant? How is it that his enemy is transformed and that his words become so central to our prayers? How it that threat and danger become something different in his eyes? How does curse turn into blessing?
Perhaps this transformation is a matter of perspective. It is a matter of distance. Perhaps looking at America from afar I see the brightness of its democracy and the successes of our American Jewish community rather than the churches now aflame and the racial divisions that gnaw at our nation’s promise and stature. Perhaps looking at Israel from a distance I see only the success of a start up nation and not the challenges that strain the fabric of its Jewish democracy.
If I were home would July 4th become more a matter of introspection rather than celebration? Would I find myself pouring over articles about Charleston and bewailing our great nation’s recent tribulations rather than singing its praises?
From a distance it looks so beautiful. It appears so splendid.
Faith is a matter of perspective.
The question is how do we gain such a perspective. How do we train our eyes to see the glimmer? How do we see what could rightfully be called a curse, and what many view as frightening, as a blessing? This is the real work of faith.
Life can at times be terrifying. How then do we nurture the eye to reshape our vision?
It is not about telling others what they want to hear. “It’s God’s will” will not brighten their day if they despair. “Baruch Hashem” will not lift their burden if it is offered by another and does not flow from their own lips. Shaping our vision is each individual person’s task. Transforming a broken heart into a healed heart is within our grasp. It is about seeing things in a new and different light. It is the work of each and every individual. And it requires looking at our lives from afar.
It is modeled by the most curious of figures. Balaam intends to curse. Instead he sees blessing. Our enemy sings our praises.
Each of us can decide what the eye sees. Whether we are terrified or rejuvenated, whether we see darkness or light, whether we can transform an enemy into a friend is within reach. They eye requires training.
Faith is about searching for a glint of sunshine in the everyday. Some days it is revealed. On all days the search must continue. To instill faith in our hearts the eye must remain open.
The distant eye unveils the heart’s faith.