Friday, September 30, 2016

A Rosh Hashanah Lesson in Seeing What Is Right In Front of You

Have you had that moment where you are looking for your keys and they are in your pocket, or that moment where you can't find your glasses because you're wearing them? It's amazing how something can be right there, and yet we don't even notice it. This occurrence goes beyond the literal, and we see this in Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah.

In the Torah portion for the first day (Genesis 21), Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. After all the water was consumed, it was uncertain as to whether Hagar and Ishmael would survive. Hagar lifted her voice, and afterwards, G-d opened Hagar's eyes, and she saw a well of water (Genesis 21:19). According to Midrash Rabbah, G-d didn't have a well miraculously appear. G-d metaphorically gave Hagar the ability to see that which was already in front of her.

We see a similar incident in the second day Rosh Hashanah Torah portion (Genesis 22) with the iconic passage about Abraham sacrificing Isaac. As Abraham was about ready to slay his son, an angel came down to stop Abraham (22:12). A verse later, Abraham saw a ram and replaced the ram with his son (22:13). According to Radak, Abraham saw the ram after it had become enmeshed in the thicket. Even if Abraham noticed the ram immediately after it was enmeshed, there was still some time between the ram arriving at the top of the mountain and Abraham noticing the ram. In either case, there a period of time where Abraham did not notice the ram, presumably because he was so entrenched in the moment.

What can we learn from this? In the Tanach, the verb "to see" (לראות) is mentioned over 400 times, whether it is conjugated or in the infinitive. Sometimes our eyes deceive us, but our eyes are also important in being able to navigate life. Even in a metaphorical sense, we are blinded by all sorts of distractions and cognitive biases: negativity bias, bandwagon effect, confirmation bias. There are so many things to distract us from seeing clearly. Perhaps it is why we Jews have a morning prayer for restoring the eyes of the blind (פוקח עברים).

With the month of Elul leading up to the High Holy Days, we are meant to partake in a high level of introspection. We are to reflect on the previous year and take an honest look at how we can improve upon ourselves, and to do so without blind spots. Without distractions or cognitive biases. If Hagar and Abraham teach us anything here, it is that what we see and focus on becomes our reality. Rosh Hashanah presents us with a choice: do we choose to continue seeing things the way we do, thereby perpetuating our status quo? Or do we take a harder, more honest and more introspective look a we approach the High Holy Days? In order to start with a New Year, we need to look at ourselves more holistically, more honestly. We need to get the distractions out of the way and view ourselves in a more sobering light. Once when we know ourselves in all honesty, both the good and bad aspects, can we begin anew.

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