“A Sunrise that Never Sets” – August, 14, 2010
“Sunrise” is a very unusual painting by the French artist, Claude Monet. Partly because of this painting’s effect on those who view it, and partly because Monet expressed, “landscape is nothing but an impression,” when asked about it, the perception of what art is changed forever.
When we look at “sunrise,” the orange sun seems luminous — brighter than any other spot on the canvas. But in reality, experts tell us, the sun’s brightness is actually the same as the sky. This means that the sun’s apparent iridescence is an optical illusion. It shines in our minds the way it does because our visual cortex can perceive color.
How we see the world, is often defined by our perceptions. We often see the world because of how we are rather than how it really is. Part of our charge as human beings, in preparation for the high holidays, is to refine and intensify our perceptions so that we can perceive the world as it really is.
How do we do this?
This week’s Torah portion begins with what seems like a reasonable requirement for establishing a judicial system. Our first verse reads, “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.” One interpretation from the Hasidic commentary, Iturei Torah, understands this verse on a deeply personal level. According to Rabbi Alan Lew and our Hasidic masters, “there are seven gates — seven windows — to the soul: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth.” Together with the sense of touch, everything that passes into our consciousness must enter through one of these gates.” So, in addition to establishing a court system, our Torah verse is telling us in an almost playful way, to invoke our senses of sight, hearing, speech, and even smell, in the service of expanding our perception of the world, deepening our self-awareness, and enlightening our consciousness.
Our “essential act” during the high holidays is teshuvah, a turning, a returning, and an inward turning, in part, so that we may “examine our perceptive mechanisms, and the ways in which we see the world.” When we hear the sound of the shofar during Elul and the high holidays, let it remind us to turn our gaze inward, and “to place judgment at the gates of our consciousness,” — to shift our focus from the outside world to the endless activity that is taking place in the “windows of our soul.”
What insights can we gain by gazing through the windows of our soul? Putting aside the sense of smell for another day, what can we learn about ourselves and our understanding of the world from our senses of sight, hearing, and speech? There is an Hasidic story about a Rebbe living in the late nineteenth century who declared to his followers one day: “There is a lesson to be learned from everything on God’s earth.” Thinking that the Rebbe was speaking in hyperbole, one of his Hasidim called out. “Oh? What can we learn from the train?”
The Rebbe answered, “that because of being one minute late, you can lose everything.”
Another follower asked, “What about the telegraph?”
“That for every word, you pay.”
A third asked: “and from the telephone?”
Without hesitation, the Rebbe replied, “that what we say here, is heard there.”
Two of the Rebbe’s three examples, give insight, not only into the power of technology, but into the influence our speech has on others and into the effect hearing the words others say has on us. We affect each other far more than we are ordinarily aware. As Rabbi Lew emphasizes, we may, at times, believe that we are independent, discrete human beings. We seem like we are separate entities. We look like we are different from one another. But are we? Just as our capacities for speech and hearing connect us to one another in unseen ways, our feelings and our “spiritual impulses” flow freely beyond the boundaries of our “selves.”
Another passage in today’s Torah reading reflects this reality of our emotional connection to one another. When it identifies men who are exempted from going to war, the Torah, speaking through military officials, asks: “Who is the man who is afraid and faint-hearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest his brothers’ hearts melt as has his.” (Deuteronomy 20:8). This verse certainly has practical implications during times of war. But it also contains a penetrating insight. We share the same heart. If someone is afraid, the emotion of fear is contagious, “so,” our hearts express to themselves, “We better send the scared one home before his fear infects us, and we are all afraid to enter into this necessary, defensive, armed conflict — we could be killed!”
Thankfully, it is not just fear or suffering that “ripples from soul to soul and heart to heart.” So does love. So does happiness. So does joy. All of our emotions flow through us as they are perceived and interpreted by our senses, and then keep on going, — permeating the vision, the hearing, and the souls of those who surround us.
If we try to shut out or defend ourselves against the onslaught of the sights, sounds or emotions that engulf us, we end up becoming angry, defensive or critical, because we cannot help it. And we must not try to shut ourselves off. Feeling another person’s pain, depression, panic or suffering is what makes s empathic human beings.
What can we do if we find ourselves overwhelmed by angry feelings because someone has “invaded our emotional space?” As people who want to take action, our impulses almost always tell us to “do something,” even when we know we cannot. If we, ourselves, have become angry or afraid, we cannot do anything effectively to alleviate the suffering of another human being.
However, if we can pause for a moment, and still our senses, we can realize that we are not always being called to action. Sometimes, we are being asked just to be present – to bear witness, to listen, and to speak kind words. Sometimes we are being asked to open our beings up to the fear, the anger, the pain, and the suffering of another. When this happens, we ourselves, stand guard at the windows of our own souls. And when we overcome “the shadow of our own fear and anger,” our own souls become luminous, reflecting not the perceived darkness of the world, but its light — the radiance that flows from our acceptance of the reality of our shared existence.
Rabbi Aviva Berg