Friday, August 19, 2016

Parashat Va'etchanan: Seeing you, Hearing God.

This past week, while I was reflecting on my camp experience, someone shared this blog post by my colleague Matt Gewirtz, about his time at Eisner, our URJ camp in the Berkshires. It's a great blog post and describes the experience of being faculty wonderfully, but what really struck me was his opening sentence: 

There is an African tradition that teaches when a person says “Hi” to a neighbor, instead of returning the salutation with the same “Hi,” the neighbor is to respond, “I see you.”

Maybe it's the post-camp glow, but I've been thinking about it ever since I read it. Rabbi Gewirtz calls it 'wise', and that is undoubtably true. It is also powerful.  How often is the greeting we share--and by extension, the people we encounter--mere background noise? Static that, at best, distracts us as we focus on our own busy life and day. And not just for the people we encounter going in-and-out of the gym and the grocery; our colleagues, our acquaintances, the people we see every day: we say hello as we walk past, not really stopping to see how they are, or even who they are. Certainly I'm as guilty of that as anyone else. So, what would it mean, then, when we say 'hi', to hear back "I see you." Or to even say that: to truly acknowledge the other person, to look them in the eye and be present for them, perhaps only for a split-second? on Wednesday as I was walking into an ice-cream place I thanked the young woman who held the door open for me, and she sounded honestly surprised that I even noticed her. How sad that a person is surprised to be seen and appreciated. 

This week we talk not about seeing but another sense. In our Torah portion this week we read the shema, 'watchword of our faith', as Moses calls upon Israel to Hear and know that God is our God and also One. Most of the focus on this verse--liturgically as well as Toraitically--is on the notion of God's Oneness and the idea of monotheism. But Gersonides also focuses on the word "Shema", hear: that it means "believe" and "obey", but also "understand". In fact, the word Shema is used throughout Deuteronomy to refer not just to the sense itself--the ability for our ears to take in the sound--but to our ability to pay attention and comprehend. There are many who would argue that Shema should not just be understood as hear--raw sensation--but LISTEN. 

So let me ask the question: as it is with seeing, is it also true with hearing? Are we listening to the people around us? Are we even listening to ourselves? Are we listening for God? To listen takes attention, it takes focus. It requires us to put ourselves aside so we can truly be attentive. To listen requires us to silence the background noise, be it on the street or in our own heads, so we can truly listen to what's important. 

One of the questions I often get is: how can we bring camp home? And usually people jump on the music, the way services are run, the 'hidden curriculum' of camp. But let me suggest another thought: I just spent 2 weeks at camp, for my 8th summer on faculty. Camp is noisy--joyously so. From the banging on tables in the dining hall to song session to the joyful yelling at the pool or the GaGa pit. Camp is full of people constantly moving. And yet, at camp, people listen to each other better, and truly see one another. At camp when someone says hi, the other person says, in not so many words, "I see you". At camp, people are really listening to each other and lifting each other up. And while I doubt many would say that they're listening for God, I truly believe God gets heard. So I would suggest one of the things we could do to bring camp home is to truly see the people around us, acknowledge them, be present for them, and to truly listen, and listen deeply--to ourselves, the people around us, and for God as well. May this be so. 

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