Holy Vision and Optical Delusion
Shanah tovah. It’s so good to see each and every one of you.
In 1952, Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, visited the U.S. on a fundraising mission. Fresh off Israel’s miraculous War of Independence victory over seven invading armies, Ben Gurion arrived to a standing ovation of thousands waiting to see him.
What do you think Ben Gurion said to those thousands of community leaders and potential donors there to see him?
He said, “Nu, what are you doing here?”
Some chuckled to hear Ben Gurion sound nonplussed; maybe they figured he was just being modest. So he doubled down:
“Nu? What are you doing here… here in America? I need to see you in Israel, not here.”
With that one jolt, Ben Gurion challenged all of those people’s visions of themselves and why they were there. His message, with an Israeli warrior’s mix of love and directness, was to engage fully. Don’t just show up to a convenient event to see and be seen.
Today none of us is Ben Gurion, but his question of 1952 is our question today: “Nu, what are we doing here?” Why are we here tonight, on Rosh Hashanah? Even more, why are we here in life? What are we here to see?
Some come to shul as part of a yearlong or lifelong spiritual vision quest. Some come mainly for holidays – maybe seeking a vision of tradition, a glimpse of a Judaism they once saw, a Judaism they wish they’d seen. Maybe we want a new vision of ourselves or others. Maybe we want to see community. Maybe we come for reasons that we ourselves can’t fully see.
Whoever you are and whatever you’re here to see, it is very good to see you. Welcome to this new year of vision.
For these High Holy Days of 5779, vision is our theme, our beacon and our purpose. Over the next Ten Days of Vision through Yom Kippur, together we’ll feel into how we see, what we see and what we’d rather not see; visions of ourselves and others; visions of the world; visions of life and visions of what’s after life. A few jolts might arouse us – “Nu, what are you doing here?” – to help shift our vision that’s become hazy, shaded or narrow.
Tonight we begin by re-focusing, spiritually speaking, as if emerging from a dark cave into bright light. Instinctively our eyes squint. There’s much to see – too much to see at first, so our eyes need time to adjust. That’s these Ten Days. Fittingly, we begin in the dark of tonight’s New Moon of Rosh Hashanah, growing brighter and brighter until the brightest light we call Yom Kippur.
So nu, what are we doing here? We’re here to see real truths of life more clearly and live them more fully. We’re here to see how we can flourish as seekers, families, communities, a country and a world. We’re here to celebrate that this is even possible from where we are now, and draw strength from each other to really do it.
First and foremost, we’re here to see and celebrate a core truth of Jewish life and spiritual life. That core truth is about vision itself: Often what’s invisible is more real than what’s visible.
The world is here for us to see, yet much of the world hides in plain sight. Maybe that’s why the Hebrew word for “world” (עולם / olam) shares its root with “hidden” (נעלם / ne’elam). Our calling is to help make what’s hidden more visible, because what’s hidden tends to be most impactful and real in this world. God, spirit, faith, doubt, love, ethics, belonging, breaking, repairing, healing and renewing: they’re real, but rarely do we see them with our physical eyes.
Rather, the vision we need, the vision that gets so schmutzy that even the schmutz gets hard to see, is a different kind of vision. That’s why we’re here. Our machzor puts it this way:
“[W]e’ve come to search for the brightness of truth about ourselves, about our people, about the land in which we live, about the work that we must do, to burn off the haze hiding these truths from daily view. We are good people, and our failings often blind us to our goodness; yet we are not so good as we would have ourselves believe. We must see the road between both exaggerations.”
Hence another key truth about vision: it tends not to be fully accurate, but we forget that it tends not to be fully accurate. We forget when we tend to see with a lens that’s too critical, blind to our goodness or another’s goodness. And we forget when we tend to see in ways that filter out visions of needed critique and correction.
How we see – and how we see how we see – is where our vision quest must begin. We start by seeing our vision for what it is – and by looking at optical illusions, or maybe optical delusions, that can cause spiritual vision to become hazy, shaded or narrow.
Rabbi Alan Lew tells a story in his book, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. Alan went on vacation with his adult son, an entomologist (insect doctor). A beautiful vista arose outside a window. Alan looked out the window smudged with schmutz, to view the scenery as best he could despite the schmutz. His son looked not through the window but at it. When Alan looked at the window, he sew a whole world of clarity and cloud, beauty to behold and schmutz to clean, amazed to see all that he hadn’t seen before.
What do you see when you look at your own inner window? What beauties of clarity and cloud are there, and what schmutz to clean? Do you go blind to your own goodness or another’s? Or do you filter out needed critique and correction you’d rather not see?
Here’s another lens, another optical delusion we all can have. Garrison Keillor signed off his radio show Prairie Home Companion from “Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all children are above average.” It’s a joke with a kernel of truth that cognitive psychologists now call the “Lake Woebegon Effect.” Take this in:
93% of U.S. drivers rate themselves above-average drivers. Any guesses how many call themselves below average? Two.
87% of MBA students rate themselves above their own class averages. Any guesses what percentage of college teachers rate themselves above-average at their own schools? Ninety-four.
Most people see ourselves as fair and unbiased, not sexist or racist. And yet, on average, women still earn a quarter less than men for doing the same job; and criminal sentences are harsher for African-American and Latinx defendants than for Caucasians and Asians convicted of the same offenses.
And I bet a majority of us hearing these words probably are thinking something like this: “Yeah, that’s right, but not about me.”
Cognitive psychologists call it “illusory superiority.” We’re so used to being and seeing however we are and see that insidiously, subconsciously, we’re likely to believe that how we see – and even how we are – are better. Illusory superiority exists for a reason: it defends us from discomfort – from seeing our imperfections, from really engaging with what seems most different, and usually both.
Of course, it’s no better to habitually see ourselves as worse than we actually are, to so diminish ourselves that we feel inferior, to so harshly judge ourselves that we immobilize ourselves. This kind of persistently negative vision can keep us stuck in a poor self-image, stuck in pain and, ironically, stuck in whatever pattern of hurt or choices that we know deep inside we most need to change.
We even experience illusory superiority and overly negative self-judgment at the same time. A rabbi prostrates on the shul floor crying, “God! Before You I am nothing!” Not to be outdone, the cantor prostrates on the floor crying, “God! Before You I am even less than nothing!” A janitor watching them gets caught up in their fervor. He joins in, “God! Before You I am nothing! Nothing at all!”
The rabbi nudges the cantor and says, “Nu, look who thinks he’s a nothing!”
We all experience illusory superiority and overly negative self-judgment – maybe one more than another based on how we’ve lived and how we’re wired. But here’s good news: we can use each of them as a corrective lens for the excesses of the other.
Reb Simcha Bunim of Przycucha, Poland, 250 years ago, carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote בשבילי נברא העולם / “For my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote אנכי עפר ואפר / “I am but dust and ashes.” He’d look at each slip of paper when he needed its reminder, a corrective for his own illusory superiority and his overly negative self-judgment.
They’re flipsides of the same coin: the world was created just for us, and we’re all but dust and ashes. My teacher, Rabbi David Zaslow, even stamped those words onto two sides of a wood coin, like Simcha Bunim’s two slips of paper. During these Ten Days of Vision, I’ll carry that coin in my own pocket as a reminder.
Which reminder do you need – that the world was made for you, or that you’re dust and ashes? Odds are you need both, and these Days of Vision offer both, to help clarify our inner vision. One reminder is Rosh Hashanah; the other is Yom Kippur.
We call Rosh Hashanah “Yom Harat Olam,” the day the world was created. Tonight we celebrate Creation’s chance to make the world anew. Tonight we need just a touch of spiritual narcissism, to allow that the world really was made for us. Why? Because that way, it’s for us, it’s in our hands – so we can make it new, so we can clear our vision, make amends and try to do better. Without this kind of vision and holy chutzpah, we’d be stuck in a dark cave.
Next week, on Yom Kippur, we’ll honor visions of our mortality. It’s a chance to see deeply the impermanence of life and re-focus our priorities precisely because we are mortal. Humanity’s hope, says the Jewish ethical tradition, is that we’re all destined to dust. That vision can be our spiritual jet fuel, inspiring us to live our fullest lives and not be dissuaded from going really deep just because it’s tough. As Ben Gurion said, “Nu, what are you doing here?”
So we get both. We need both. Tonight envisions Creation, starting anew, a world really created for us. Let’s go there.
It’s Genesis 1, the biblical Creation. In the beginning, when the Holy first began to create, the world was a jumbled mess, dark and deep. The Spirit hovered over the face of the deep… then said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב, which we usually translate as “God saw that the light was good.”
Why? Was darkness not good? And don’t we sometimes need darkness? Without darkness we miss subtleties. As Robert Frost wrote in his poem to stars, “dark is what brings out your light.” Dark times can inspire heroism; challenge can cultivate strength and resilience. So was darkness not good?
Many see these days as dark for our country, for democracy, for pluralism. It’s hard to see what’s happening as good. A spiritual vision that calls everything good might be accurate existentially, but tell that to immigrant children separated from their parents, or to the rising number of hate-crime victims. A vision that recoils against all judgment of distinction has its own kind of optical delusion, maybe doesn’t want to take sides. But we must take sides. As Elie Wiesel said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Now is no time for neutrality – not for the world out there, and not for our worlds within. We must learn to see ourselves again as potent, capable, engaged, intrepid. We must act, in ourselves and for the world. And we may need the dark to rouse us – like tonight’s New Moon darkness in which we begin the New Year, “since dark is what brings out your light.”
Which means we need a new translation for Creation. It can’t mean simply that the light was good. Think about it: in the biblical Creation, God preceded the light. What does that say about our vision of what’s good, or even goodness itself?
The Hebrew offers another way – for Creation and for spiritual life. Again, וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב. The words וירא אלהים את האור / “God saw the light,” period. And what of כי טוב? Those words mean “because goodness,” period. So we can retranslate and renew our vision as follows: God saw the light, because goodness exists. Because goodness already existed. It’s through the possibility of goodness that God could see, and we can see, at all.
It is the possibility of goodness that is our vision, the fount of everything. The lens we all most need is that lens.
In that vision is our capacity to renew; our power to seek and give forgiveness; our ability to remake our small corner of the world; our ability to take sides and matter in a world that urgently needs us to act for goodness sake; and our ability to see our optical delusions for what they are, and use one as a corrective lens for the other so that we can act. Only then do we live our fullest life.
That kind of world was made for us. Nu, it’s why we’re here. It’s why we dedicate these High Holy Days to vision, to seeing the possibility of goodness, to living our fullest life.
On this Erev Rosh Hashanah when we channel a vision of Creation anew, may we be renewed and empowered to renew our world with a vision of all it can be, and all we can be. In that merit, may we be blessed with a Shanah Tovah of love and meaning, courage and daring, to live our fullest life.
Lir’ot b’tuv Adonai,
What if I fully believed
To see the goodness of God!
What if I fully believed
To live my fullest life!