Finding Joy in Sight: Re’ah

Warning—this is not a political sermon. I need Shabbat to be Shabbat. It could be but it is not. If you want to discuss the politics of the week, I am fine with engaging in that over Kiddush. If you want to see my words from yesterday’s rally on City Hall Plaza, they are available here:

Seeing is believing, right? We’ve all heard that phrase. But what if we see something incorrectly? There are all kinds of stories about expert “testimony” at court cases. Once in Grand Rapids the mystery book group, together with the library and my parents’ bookstore, did an event that included someone to teach how to provide eyewitness testimony. The Grand Rapids Press reporter then got all the details wrong for the “crime” that happened outside the bookstore. She saw what she wanted to see, right? Seeing is believing, right?

The sun is going to disappear on Monday. It is going to be hidden. The Chinese thought that a dragon was eating the moon. The Romans thought that the sun was poisoned and dying. Universally, they were seen as a time of fear.

Jews understood that the moon was passing between the sun and earth creating that shadow. And while I am fond of saying that there is a blessing for everything in Judaism, apparently, there is no blessing for an eclipse, while there is for hail, rain, rainbows, flowers. All sorts of natural wonders. But not an eclipse.

The rabbis knew about eclipses. They could even accurately predict them, well into the future. Rambam, the famous commentator was a rabbi, a physician and an astronomer.

The rabbis even believe that they are mentioned all the way back in Genesis One in the description of the Creation. “And G-d said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens…and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.” Rashi, the medieval commentator told us that “for signs” referred to when the luminaries are eclipsed and that “this is an unfavorable omen for the world.”

But while some argued we should be afraid, Rashi actually concludes his commentary with words of comfort, from Jeremiah, who I find the least comforting of the prophets, As it is said, ‘And from the signs of heaven be not dismayed, etc. (Jeremiah 10:2). When you perform the will of the Holy One, you need not fear retribution.”

This brings us right to this week’s portion. The first word of today’s potion is “Re’ah, See.” “See, I set before you blessing and curse.” How do we know what the blessing is? How do we know what the curse is? How do we tell the difference?

Sometimes the blessing seems hidden, just like the sun will be on Monday. Sometimes G-d seems hidden, just like the sun will be on Monday.

We get to choose. Blessing or curse. It is a matter of free will.

Many periods of time have seemed dark for the Jews. Perhaps you even think this is a dark period. Perhaps you even think this is a dark period in your own life.

In Judaism we have the idea of Hester Panim, the hidden face of G-d. G-d is not present in the Book of Esther—hidden from view. Esther’s own name means hidden and she is hidden in the palace—in plain view. She rises to the occasion and heeds Mordechai’s call. “Think not of yourself…that you will escape in the king’s house. For if you keep silent in these times, then relief and deliverance will come from another place…and who knows, perhaps you are in this place for such a time as this.”

We are heading into the High Holiday period, a time of introspection and reflection. On Rosh Hodesh Elul, 40 days from Yom Kippur we begin by adding a shofar blast and Psalm 27.

Psalm 27 tells us the Lord is my light and my help. Who shall I fear…Hide not Your Presence from me…”

This Psalm reminds me of the song that Debbie Friedman wrote, Al Tatsir, Don’t Hide Your Face from Me.

Don’t hide Your face from me;
I’m asking for Your help.
I call to You, please hear my prayers, 0 G-d.
If you would answer me, as I have called to You
Please heal me now, don’t hide Your face from me.
Debbie Friedman

We want G-d to be present in our lives. We don’t want G-d to be hidden. And it feels that G-d may be hidden especially in difficult times. When we need healing. When we are scared. We don’t want to feel abandoned by G-d.

There is an irony in our text. You cannot see the face of G-d and live. You cannot look at the eclipse and keep your sight. It is too blinding. Moses speaks to G-d face to face at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. At the Mishkan. Moses is hidden in the cleft of the rock and all G-d’s goodness passes before him. Moses sees G-d’s backside, whatever that means. And yet, at the end of Deuteronomy, we are told that, “And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

How is that possible? And what does that mean for us? Maybe G-d’s presence is always a little bit hidden. Like the wind. We can’t see it but we can feel it’s presence and we can see the trees sway in the breeze.

And yet, we still pray the priestly benediction, the Birkat Hacohanim, “May G-d bless you and keep you. May G-d’s face shine upon you. May G-d’s face turn toward you and give you peace.” In traditional congregations when the blessing is proclaimed, the congregation doesn’t even look at the cohanim. They avert their eyes so they will not be blinded.

Perhaps Alan Zeichick, a lay leader and former North American board member of the Reform movement, captured it best in his poem he wrote for Selichot after seeing a partial eclipse:

Before I Die, I Want to Know the Face of G-d:

Every day, I see the Face of the Sun.
Before I die, I want to know the Face of God.

The Face of God is like the Face of the Sun.
The Face of God is not like the Face of the Sun.

The Sun is 93 million miles away, its light and warmth are everywhere.
God is both far away and nearby at the same time.

The Sun nurtures us, yet does not know we exist.
God nurtures us and God created us.

Astronomers and physicists struggle to understand the Sun.
Rabbis and philosophers struggle to understand God.

To touch the Sun would be to die instantly.
We touch God and God touches us every day.

To stare directly at the Sun without protective lenses is to risk blindness.
Exodus 33:20: God says “You will not be able to see My Face, for man shall not see Me and live.”

The Sun has existed for billions of years and will exist for billions more.
God has always existed and always will exist.

The Sun is so bright it washes away the stars.
God’s light, the Shechinah, illuminates the deepest darkness.

The Sun warms the Earth even at night when we do not see.
God warms our souls even when we do not believe.

The Sun’s light consists of photons, which are simultaneously particles and waves.
God’s light of creation, the ohr ein sof, is limitless spiritual energy.

The Sun appears unchanging yet sunspots and flares show that it does change.
God appears unchanging yet Torah teaches that God does change.

The Sun exists through the tension between gravity and nuclear fusion.
God exists because God exists.

I always know that the Sun exists.
Some days, I am not sure that God exists.

The Sun’s energy comes from hydrogen fusing into helium.
The Sun’s energy comes from God.

Life is impossible without the Sun.
Life is unimaginable without God.

With the right camera and filters, I can photograph the Sun.
With the right teachers, I can study God and be enlightened.

Every day, I can see the Face of the Sun.
Before I die, I want to know the Face of God.

We can see the hidden face of G-d, in the beauty that surrounds us. In the wonder of G-d’s glorious creation. A physicist at MIT, Gerald Schoeder, has even written a book, The Hidden Face of G-d, to explain how science shows us the ultimate truth. That is a sermon for another time, but the title is just right for this sermon.

We can see the face of G-d. Even when we are the most stressed. Ultimately I agree with the organization, Positive Judaism who reminds us of Psalm 139:12, “Even the darkness is not too dark for You, and the night is as bright as the day.”

We are told that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of G-d. Each of us, therefore has that divine spark inside of us. So Les Mis had it right, “To love another person is to see the face of G-d.” Like Alan said in his poem, before I die I want to know the face of G-d. Even in these dark times. Especially in these dark times. Come join me, as together we search for it.