Seeing Things Differently
Rosh HaShanah Morning 5779
Rabbi David S. Widzer
Note: As a sermon about seeing things differently, there were graphics accompanying different sections of the sermon displayed on our sanctuary video screen.
I’ve worn glasses since I woke up one morning when I was three years old and my eyes were crossed. One surgery, several pediatric eye patches, and many pairs of glasses later, my eyesight has been pretty stable. At least until earlier this year, when I noticed that I had to start holding things a little farther away from my face.
The letters seemed a little smaller or fuzzier and I found I was using larger font sizes! Maybe it’s because of my ocular experiences that I’ve always enjoyed optical illusions, tricks of the eye that make us see different things. Let’s try a few.
What do you see here? How many of you can see the white vase in the middle of the picture? How many of you can see the two faces in black? How many of you have your eyes open to seeing both images?
How about this one? What do you see? It’s a little trickier. Can you see the younger woman, looking away from us, so that you only see her little nose and eyelash in profile? Can you see the older woman, looking down and to the left? If it helps, the chin and cheek of the younger woman is the nose of the older woman; the younger woman’s left ear is the older woman’s left eye; the choker around the neck of the young woman is the mouth of the older woman. Are you open to seeing both images?
And how about this one? Is the dress black and blue? Or is it white and gold? For this one there actually is an answer and a scientific explanation as to why people might see it differently, but that’s a different sermon for another time!
This question of how we see things, and being able to see things differently, is an inherent part of these High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we are called upon to look back on the year that has passed and see clearly where we have gone wrong. What misdeeds have we performed, what harsh words have we said? And then we are asked to re-imagine, re-envision our best selves, how we truly want to be in the year to come. We look ahead to see what we would do differently this next time around. The High Holy Days call us to teshuvah, a returning or repenting. The great medieval sage, Maimonides, taught that the truest test of our efforts at teshuvah comes when we are faced with the same choice that led us astray last year, and instead we see a different way forward and choose a different path.
We need this ability to see things differently for three reasons. The first is that sometimes, we only see a part of the larger whole. We need to be able to see things differently so we can see the full picture. In the Torah portion we heard this morning, all that Abraham can see is the altar in front of him, the knife in his hand, and his son, Isaac, bound in place as an offering to God. Abraham can’t see any choice other to sacrifice his son. It takes an angel calling to Abraham for him to lift up his eyes and look around at the full scene. Only then does Abraham see the ram caught in the thicket, which will be the offering in place of his son. Abraham needed to see things differently in order to pass God’s test and not sacrifice his son.
When we only see part of the big picture, we may make poor choices or erroneous conclusions. The story is told of six blind people who encounter an elephant and try to describe the animal by what they feel.
The first person, grabbing its trunk, says, “This creature is like a snake.” The second touched its ear and said, “It is like some kind of fan.” The third, pressing against its side, said, “An elephant is a wall.” The fourth, holding its tail, described the animal as a rope. The fifth, touching a leg, proclaimed, “It is like a tree trunk.” The final person, feeling the tusk, said that the elephant is smooth and hard like a spear. None of them could accurately describe an elephant as a whole: each of them could only tell about the one section they experienced directly. With only partial information, they came to the wrong conclusions.
How many television sitcoms episodes use this same idea? “Sheldon doesn’t know the full story about what Leonard and Penny are doing. Hilarity ensues.” “Joey only overhears part of Monica and Chandler’s plan. Hilarity ensues.” “Mr. Roper thinks he sees something suspicious going on with Jack and the girls. Hilarity ensues.”
We may not be blind like the elephant investigators, or simply written like sitcom characters, but we, too, are prone to making poor judgments when we cannot see the big picture. We may jump to conclusions, only to find out later that we didn’t have all the information and were wrong. We accuse a friend, a co-worker, a spouse, a child, of some deed, based on the facts as we knew them, and only later find out that we didn’t have all the facts. We have to see things differently in order to see them fully, so we can make our best judgments and decisions.
A second reason we might need to see things differently is so that we might better understand someone else’s point of view.
This graphic prompts the question, “Is it a 6 or a 9?” From the perspective of the person with the hat, it’s a 9. For the other person, it’s a 6. If you stood in the place of one of these people, you would see the number from their perspective. It takes standing in the other person’s place to be able to understand why the other person sees it so differently. Once we consider things from other people’s perspectives, we can understand better why they say what they say and believe what they believe.
There is a danger in assuming that our way of seeing things is the only way. If we do not consider another person’s point of view, there can be no understanding. The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, teaches this in his poem, “The Place Where We Are Right.”
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
House once stood.
If we think that we, and we alone, are always right, we will be in that “hard and trampled” place where “flowers will never grow.” We need to be able to see things differently, to see things from other person’s perspective, to allow for a fuller understanding and relationship.
Consider the friendship that existed between Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia. She is a champion of women’s rights and a fierce advocate for a dynamic understanding of the Constitution. He was an ardent conservative and an originalist in Constitutional interpretation. They were often at the extreme opposite ends of court decisions. And yet, they were close friends, sharing New Year’s Eve parties and souvenir shopping. Their ideological differences sharpened each other’s thinking. Justice Ginsberg recalled that, while writing for the majority in one case, Justice Scalia made sure to give her a copy of his blistering dissent as quickly as possible. She said, “He absolutely ruined my weekend, but my opinion is ever so much better,” because she understood his opposition and could respond to it.
Doesn’t that work for us in our relationships, too? When we can stop and view things the way someone else sees them, we gain a deeper understanding. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the author, Harper Lee, points out “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” When we see things differently, from another’s perspective, we can reach a better understanding of other people and the world around us.
A third reason why we sometimes need to see things differently is because circumstances change. Events happen, knowledge emerges, context shifts, society evolves, and the way we view things has to be altered. We need to see things differently.
Think about Judaism as we know it today, compared to how we read about it in the Bible. We are not all gathered in Jerusalem, congregating at one massive Temple in the heart of the city, bringing sheep and goats and the bounty of our harvest to be burnt as offerings to God by a priestly member of the tribe of Levi. All that changed over the centuries, with the destruction of the great Temple, the rise of the local house of worship, the transition from animal offerings to prayers, the development of rabbis and teachers as leaders. The Jewish world shifted and how we saw and practiced Judaism changed, too.
We come to see things differently as scientific knowledge grows. Lead used to be an ingredient in paints, making them dry more quickly and last longer. But we stopped using lead in paint when its health effects became better understood. Smoking used to be seen as the epitome of style and charm. Nowadays the visuals associated with smoking are more likely to be diseased lungs and stained teeth. And who remembers the map of the different taste areas of the tongue? We were taught that that we tasted salty foods in one area, sweet tastes in another, bitter and sour tastes in different places. Contemporary science has shown this to be wrong. We have different sensitivities in different areas on our tongue, but we can taste any of these foods anywhere. In all these examples, increases in scientific knowledge have caused us to see things differently.
We see things differently as societal awareness changes. We are much more safety conscious, for example. It once was the case that you might drive a car, ride a bike, or go out in the sun, without feeling a special need to look out for your wellbeing. Nowadays, we see seat belts, bike helmets, and sunscreen as necessities for those activities, as we view safety differently. Our social norms have also changed, as well. Clearly, there is still much work to be done, but in most corners of America, sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, and antisemitism are much less prevalent than they were sixty years age. Despite an uptick in recent months, and due to the recent instances of brave people speaking out, it is no longer as acceptable as it once was to see differences between people as an open license to mistreat them. We see these issues differently now because times have changed.
All of these different ideas about seeing things differently – in order to see the bigger picture, in order to understand another person’s point of view, in order to recognize that times have changed – all of these are important things to consider this morning because of the circumstances of our congregational life.
As a congregation, we have had quite a year. One year ago, Han Moory Church had just purchased the building and was just getting used to its new surroundings. One year ago, we announced from this bimah that another congregation, Temple Beth Or, was interested in joining us in our journey towards the future of the Jewish community. A year later, we have grown more used to our role as tenant in a place that once was our exclusive home. And a year later, we have inaugurated a partnership that, in a year’s time, will result in a new merged community.
As we enter into this year, we see things in two different ways, from two different perspectives. They exist at the same time, like the vase and faces or the older and younger woman in the drawings, depending on how we wish to see things at any given moment.
We look back proudly at our history as Temple Beth El of Northern Valley, 68 years of Reform Jewish life in northern New Jersey. We glance about at this building that has been our spiritual home. Its stones would speak of Sabbath prayers and heartfelt song, the Torah chant of B’nai Mitzvah students, the sound of young children at play. Its walls have held the joy of wedding couples and the tears of the bereaved. Its halls have hosted hundreds of meetings and its parking lot the conversations afterwards. We see, in sadness, what will be here no more, even as we know we are bringing with us when we leave the memories of our past, as surely as we are bringing the stained glass.
At the same time, we can see ahead the shape of the future still to unfold. We have partners with whom to share this journey, as our combination with Temple Beth Or will create a stronger, vibrant community. We have a location, a building, a physical space that will be our community’s spiritual home. We have a vision of what it means to be an innovative, inclusive, incredible center of Jewish life for the next 68 years. We see, with excitement, the promise of what will yet be.
It is our intention this year to keep both of these perspectives in sight. We will celebrate and honor the legacy of our Temple Beth El heritage, giving appropriate time and opportunities to acknowledge what we are losing and to pay tribute to our past. And we will engage in activities and discussions that help us pivot towards our future, excitedly planning for the year to come. We will keep in sight the big picture, that this time of transition isn’t only moments of sadness or only giddy anticipation, but that the year ahead will contain both. We know that people will have different perspectives on the changes that are happening, and that we will need to be willing to see things from other people’s points of view to fully understand what they are experiencing. We know that times have changed in the Jewish world, and that, as a congregation, we must, too. We will see things differently at different moments, bearing all of the different emotions, as we realize our vision for our community.
Maybe one last visual example to help us understand about seeing things differently. For those who have not yet been there, this is what the office building at 660 Kinderkamack Road looks like now. [slides of the building] Over the summer, after a lengthy process, the Temple Beth El/Temple Beth Or Integration Team hired Joel Ives of The Ives Architecture Studio to transform this space. The Design and Construction Committee has been meeting with Joel all summer to develop the guiding concepts and requirements. Are you ready to see things differently? Instead of an office building, I invite you now to see this as our community’s new home. These are just artists’ renderings and conceptual drawings, not the final plans. But they allow us to see this place differently, to see it as our future. [slides of artist’s renderings] Poster-sized versions of these concept drawings will be available for viewing in the lobby after the service today.
We are called, on this Rosh HaShanah morning, to see things from new and different perspectives, for our community and for ourselves. We need to see things differently so that we can better understand the whole. We need to see things differently to understand one another and the different views we might have. We need to see things differently because circumstances change and we respond. We see things from different perspectives at the same time, looking back and looking ahead.
This is our quest this Rosh HaShannah morning, our mission, our vision. We see ourselves as who we have been, but imagine who we can become.
May God bestow upon us the wisdom we need to envision our future.
May God grant us the ability to be clear-sighted.
May God help us to make it a year of great vision and seeing differently
for us all. Amen.