My deepest regret, going on that retreat, was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear Reb Zalman (z”l) teach. He was slated to teach at four in the morning, the last slot before dawn. And I had spent the last nine months not sleeping. There was no way I was staying up that late (or waking up that early), even to hear Reb Zalman.
But it turned out that my son didn’t like the portacrib at the retreat center, and he woke up every hour all night long. By four, I had given up. I put him in the stroller. I rolled him over to the building where Reb Zalman was teaching. I draped a tallit over the stroller to make it dark in his little cave. And I rolled him in slow circles around the back of the room. While he slept, I listened to the teacher of my teachers as he taught until dawn.
Once, said Reb Zalman, there was a Sufi master who had twenty disciples. Each of his disciples wanted to succeed him as leader of their lineage. So one day he gave them each a live bird in a small cage. He told them to go someplace where no one could see them, and there to kill their bird, and then to return to him when their work was complete.
Some time later, nineteen of them came back with dead birds. The twentieth came back with a live bird still in its cage.
“Why didn’t you kill your bird?” asked the Sufi master.
“I tried to do as you asked,” said the student. “But no matter where I went, I couldn’t find a place where no One could see me.”
Of course, that was the student who deserved to lead the community: the one who knew that God is always present, and always sees us.
That, said Reb Zalman, is the meaning of יראה/ yirah, “awe” or “fear of God.” Yirah means knowing that God is our רואה / roeh, the One Who sees us. It means knowing that we are always seen.
The letters that spell יראה/ yirah, “awe,” also spell yireh, “vision” — our theme for these Days of Awe at CBI this year. These letters in their various permutations are all over the Torah reading we dipped into last week on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
On that day we read the Binding of Isaac. Maybe you remember the story: Avraham takes his son, his only son, whom he loves, up to a mountaintop. And there he almost sacrifices his son, until an angel calls to him to stay his hand. Ah, יְרֵ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אַ֔תָּה / yirei Elohim atah, says the angel: now I know that you have that feeling of awe; you know you are seen.
It’s then that Avraham sees the ram. He doesn’t see the thing he most needs until he first knows himself to be seen. And Avraham names that place “God-sees,” because “On the mountain of God there is vision.” Or maybe, on the mountain of God there is awe. Or maybe, when we allow ourselves to feel awe, and to feel seen, we can see things we couldn’t have seen before.
Here are a few other words from our tradition, from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we daven on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur:
כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ, מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּֽחַת שִׁבְטוֹ, כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפּוֹר וְתִמְנֶה, וְתִפְקוֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חַי
Just as a shepherd sees the sheep and makes them pass under the staff, so do You account for the souls of all who live…
“Just as a shepherd sees the sheep…” God is our shepherd: we know that metaphor from the psalms. A shepherd, a רועה, is someone who looks after his charges. There’s Hebrew wordplay here: רואה (spelled differently, but sounds the same) means one-who-sees, or vision-er. God is our shepherd, and God is the One Who sees us, Who visions us into what we have not yet become.
Our tradition teaches that God sees all of our best qualities, and all of our worst ones. Every beautiful and amazing and remarkable thing we have ever done, and everything shameful and humiliating and hateful, too. Tonight invites us to be laid bare before God. In our beauty and our love, and in our cowardice and our cruelty to others and to ourselves.
Our tradition teaches that for sins against God — missteps where we harmed ourselves or our Source, where we failed to live up to who we know we could be — Yom Kippur atones. Where we’ve harmed each other, we need to make teshuvah and do better — but where we’ve harmed ourselves and our God this day itself can wipe the slate clean. Here’s the thing: in order for us to feel forgiven by tomorrow night, we have to let ourselves be laid bare tonight. Not for the sake of wallowing in our own missteps. For the sake of the change in us that can come when we know we are seen.
Okay, time to get real: how many of us don’t believe a word I just said?
God as a shepherd, making each of us pass beneath the staff and taking note of all of our actions and choices. God Who sees us. All of our deeds and choices written down in some mystical Book on high, the Book of Life and the Book of Death and by tomorrow night we’ll be inscribed in one or the other for the year to come. Who here thinks all of this is really a load of malarkey?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not.
I mean, it may matter profoundly to you. I hope that it does matter to you: what you believe, whether you believe, what you can believe in. But whether or not you believe in gravity, if you drop something it will land on the floor. And whether or not you believe in a God Who sees us, today is about being seen. Because God or no God, each of us can see ourselves clearly — though we don’t usually want to. And I get that. Seeing ourselves clearly can be uncomfortable, and most of us don’t choose discomfort most of the time.
Yom Kippur invites us into the squirm-inducing feeling of being completely seen. Why is the intimacy of being seen so agonizing? Because we don’t like everything that we are. Because we fear that if someone really sees us, they’ll turn away. That’s why people spend a lifetime trying to only show our good side: dressing to impress, pretending away our doubt, accentuating the positive.
But that’s not being real. That’s not being whole. And I don’t want to only be loved if I put on a happy face, or if I’m careful to show only nice emotions, or if I hide my flaws and my mistakes and my insecurities. And it’s just as damaging in the other direction: I don’t want to only be loved if I hide away my strength and my splendor and my light, either.
In a real friendship, I don’t have to hide either my brokenness or my strength. And if that’s true with my friends, how much more true with the Beloved Friend our tradition names as God.
Authentic spiritual life invites us to be real. And because it’s human nature to shy away from feeling our feelings, Jewish tradition gives us today. Yom Kippur says: it’s time to get real. Right now. That’s what we’re here for. It’s time to be completely seen, in all of our beauty and all of our shame. And it’s time to know that we are loved: not despite who we are, but precisely because of who we are, flaws and all. Our daily liturgy makes us that promise every single night and morning: we are loved by unending love. Not “when we’re perfect.” Not “when we pretend.” But always.
Maybe you don’t believe in God. In the words of my teacher Reb Zalman z”l, I hope that sometime in the year to come you’ll tell me about the God you don’t believe in. Truly: I want to know! But okay, for now there’s a God you don’t believe in, and maybe that’s the Shepherd, or the Friend, or the Judge taking stock of our choices on high.
So what would it feel like to look at yourself unflinchingly and to respond to all of your strengths and your failings with ahavat olam, that unending love that our liturgy describes? Whether or not you believe in a God Who sees you and loves you, take tonight to see yourself as clearly as your inner eyes will permit. Take stock of yourself, in all that you are. And cultivate love for yourself: not a facile surface love that requires you to pretend away your mis-steps, but a mature love, a whole love, a holy love that flows precisely from seeing yourself clearly. Not for the sake of self-flagellation or self-aggrandizement, but for the sake of the new vision of yourself you can call into being when you feel the awe of being seen.
God our ro’eh, our Shepherd and our Vision-er, invites us into a new vision of who and how we can be in the year to come. Or maybe we invite ourselves into that vision. And maybe those are two ways of saying the same thing. Either way, the vision beckons, once we open ourselves to awe: the vulnerable, trembling feeling of knowing that we are seen.
Our spiritual ancestor Avraham allowed himself to feel awe — probably mixed with some anxiety, and even some despair. Remember, his only son was bound on an altar and he was holding a knife in his hand. The world must have looked bleak to him in that moment. His vision of his own self must have looked bleak to him in that moment: everything he had done, everything he had not-done, everything that led him to that terrible moment. But when he let himself feel the awe of being seen, his eyes were opened to something new right in front of him. The sheep caught in the thicket changed everything.
On Rosh Hashanah morning I spoke about the need to vision a world of justice and ethics and human dignity, and to take action toward building that world. Sometimes we take action toward building that world fueled by the fires of our own righteous indignation. And sometimes we take action toward building that world out of a place of desperation, a place of recognizing where we’ve fallen short. Both of those are necessary. Both of those are real.
It’s Kol Nidre night. If we let ourselves feel the awe of being seen, what might we see — in ourselves, in the year to come — that we couldn’t see before?
This year CBI’s theme for the Days of Awe is Vision. My sermons reflect and refract that theme in different ways.