Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Two Close for Comfort

We were studying the second chapter of B'midbar in class, combing the repetitive text for any unusual features, the kind which prod the mind to deeper comprehension. But what can one expect to find in a passage that merely describes the manner in which the tribes of Israel were arrayed around the Mishkan? Four indentical descriptions, one for each of the formations corresponding to the four points of the compass, each formation named for its lead tribe, with two flanking tribes...

"Look carefully," urged Morah Nechamah. "For instance, can you explain why in each case, after the lead tribe of the formation is identified, its leader named and its census figures given, the text continues, "and those who camped next to them...", followed by the name of the first of the two flanking tribes, except in the case of the third formation, the formation led by the tribe of Ephraim, where the phrase reads, "and next to them..."? Why in this case has the word vhachonim ("and those who camped") been elided?

I was about to dismiss the suggestion to focus on this seemingly insignificant textual difference, when suddenly, it came to me, my hand shot up, and, acknowledged, it all came spilling out:

"Who are the four tribes chosen to head up the formations?" I asked rhetorically. "Are they not all, in some sense, first-borns? Reuven, the head of the second formation, is literally Ya'acov's first-born, son of Leah, his first wife. Yehudah, 4th son of Leah and the head of the first formation, is the functional first-born, have stepped into the leadership role for both the bad and the good when Reuven's leadership was ineffectual. Dan is the first-born of of the hand-maiden's sons and he heads up the last formation. And who is the head of the third formation, the one with the varient text connecting its leader with the subordinate tribes? Ephraim, the first-born of Rachel."

Everyone was shocked by my blatant error, so I quickly explained:
"Yes, of course, Yosef was Rachel's first-born son, and in fact, Ya'acov treated him in many ways as an entitled first-born, so much so that, when Menashe and Ephraim, Yosef's two sons, were brought to an aging Ya'acov for blessing, Ya'acov adopted them both, effectively doubling Yosef's portion in his heritage, a fitting gesture for the first born of the women who "should" have been Ya'acov first wife".

The confusion hadn't yet cleared, so I went on:
"True, Menashe was the first-born of Yosef, but when they were brought before Ya'acov for blessing, Ya'acov crossed his hands and blessing Ephraim with his right hand, making him the officially sanctioned first-born of Yosef.

"Ya'acov could have known better than to foment strife... after all, from the beginning of the world, Bereshit opens with the disastrous contention between two brothers jockeying for position, the one born to priviledge, with no concept of the possibility of a challege to WHAT HE IS, the other born into subordinance, with no concept that he might rise to a position of supremacy. Hashem throws everything into disarray by showing favor to the younger, and murder and exile follow. Such is the pattern over and over again throughout Bereshit: Avraham and Lot (son/heir of Avraham's prematurely deceased brother, Haran), Yitzchak and Yishmael, Ya'acov and Esav. Ya'acov has even already played his part in maintaining this tradition by promoting Yosef over his brothers, so why, oh why would he do so again with his own grandsons?

"Perhaps because of the following idea: Ramchal tells us that the revelation of the Oneness of the Divine can only come about when a perceived multiplicity is overcome. Physicality is inherantly generative of multiplicity, for there is extent over time and space. There is the possibility of two. Endow more than one being with G-d-like SELF-awareness, and you've already got the blueprint for the internecine chaos that characterizes human history. It's THAT which must be overcome. When the places of the first and the last are switched, SELF-identity MUST expand to encompassed the new reality, or die fighting it. Brothers should be one, yet nothing is so vicious as when they turn on each other.

"G-d's challenge to brothers whose personalities and characters, so carefully laid down experience by experience, are torn asunder by spinning the wheel of hierarchy: GROW! Become more, and, simultaneously yet ironically, become one. The oldest must learn subordinance, an impossibly difficult challenge for one raised with no concept of another; the yougest must learn to fully assert himself without fear of the specter of another who will push him down.

"Kayin and Hevel failed horrendously; each subsequent pair less so. Exile and estrangement, but no murder, and then even no exile, merely estrangement, and then, reconcilication, but remaining at a distance... until Ephraim and Menashe. They were able to move into new self-concepts not only without pushing off the other, but actually by drawing the other ever closer. Ya'acov sets the template for all subsequent blessings with their names: Y'simcha E-lokim k'Eprhaim u'Menashe. And when they are mentioned later, they are mentioned together. When each tribe has a leader introduced who will represent it in the census at the beginning of B'midbar, each tribe is alloted its own verse... except for "Bnei Yosef, Ephraim...u'Menashe". In Sefer Yehoshua (chapter 16-17), the territory is allotted to "Bnei Yosef", the complaint they issue is issued jointly, and Yehoshua responds to them jointly. The brothers have become well-nigh inseparable.

" 'And those who were camped" is used wherever proximity is offset by the perceived need for expression of distinction. Each formation in the desert was comprised of three distinct tribes, each zealously protective of its developing traditions and identities. Each is willing to be allied with another group, yet this must not be confused with a merger. No larger corporated entity is being created here, there will be no effacing of boundaries, no revelation of the One.

"Except for Ephraim and Menashe. There, they are too close to one another for such an expression of complete distinction. Menashe are not (separately) encamped next to Ephraim, they are just "next to", truly juxtaposed, ready to reveal the ultimate transcendant One.

"And note," I concluded, "that Degel Machaneh Ephraim is situated in the west, adjoining that part of the Mishkan which is the Holy of Holies, home to the indwelling presence of Hashem.

"When there is nothing between us, there is Hashem between us..."

I looked up at my students, and they had been with me all the way...

My students? Hadn't I been the student in Morah Nechama's class? Wasn't this an account of what came to me there?

No. I never had the priviledge of studying with Nechamah Leibowitz, but an older colleague had graciously given me years ago his copies of her "Gilyonot" from when he had been her avid student. And yesterday, when she came off the pages of her Gilyonot to prod me to think deeper, I sat in her virtual classroom for an eyeblink that was an eternity before I gave over what she had given to me.

{Note: the insight regarding the bechor status of the four leading tribes is a woefully inadequate rendering of a major thrust of a wonderful shiur by Rav Menachem Leibtag, which can be found here. I've also only virtually learned from him. The rest I don't recall seeing elsewhere - I'd love to be disabused of this conceit and recite, "Baruch shekivnani l'da'at hagedolim"}

Monday, September 04, 2006


We were taking our leave after one of our all too occassional walks. "Next week, same time?" he suggested, then remembered he'd be in L.A. "No problem", I joked, "we'll meet in Griffith Park!" Laughing, he said, "isn't that where they have the absorbatory?"

Instantly, my punning, wordplay-loving-mind kicked into overdrive, with its pal, the hunter for hidden profundity riding shotgun in the sidecar, as I brought up memories. It was many years ago and I don't remember who I was with, or what I was on (Griffith Park was a favorite for that) - but we were at the planetarium show. The Griffith Park Observatory, perched on a favored hill with a classic view of L.A., was once an active observatory, but for most Angelenos, it functioned much more as a destination for daytrips with the kids to watch the show, as well as nighttrips for the "kids" to watch the show! We leaned our heads back on the headrest, forgot about the oddly shaped Zeiss planetarium projector in the middle of the circular auditorium. The lights dimmed, the dome darkened, and darkened, and darkened some more. The stars began to appear on the dome, and as the room grew pitch dark, the stars glowed brilliantly in the "sky". But our reverie was not to last long this time, for a women sitting behind us commented, derisively, to her companion, "Oh, come on, that's not how the stars look!"

The comment was as deflating as it was wrong-headed. It could have been uttered only by a long-time denizen of light-polluted greater L.A. who perhaps had never been out in nature, far from the madding crowd, when the heavens put on their nightly show. The irony was that, a few hundred meters from the Hollywood sign, here was this person, standing reality on its head by her dismissive ignorance.

But it was deflating as well, since I had come there to recapture the bliss I had known on many an outing from my years in Boy Scouts on. And while I had never managed to identify the constellations, I, like most human beings throughout history, could lose myself stargazing.

So much has been written about the vast expanses dotted with countless brilliant galaxies, each one in turn bigger and more varied than we can possibly imagine. Yet imagine we do, and as we do, the observer becomes absorbed in the glory of being. For a few moments he escapes the confines of his own biography and its attendant reminders of duty and mortality.

Once, in 1976, I took a trip to the Sinai desert. We travelled in the standard transport vehicle of those days for youth tours - a large, flatbed truck chassis with a bus body bolted to its back. Not too comfortable, to be sure, but able to handle pretty much anything the Sinai terrain could throw at it. We were on that "truss" for some 10 hours, from Jerusalem all the way down the Arava through Eilat and along the Red Sea coast till we pulled over near Nuiba, then a few shacks on the beach. Miles from nowhere (great image, Cat!), we stepped out of the "buck" for the first time since we had boarded in the blazing Jerusalem morning.

The sky blew us away. So ink-black, yet so blazing with light, so powerfully beckoning. I was an L.A. boy, with a few trips to the Sierras, what did I know? I gazed so achingly, I think I cried. I was lost in a sea of glistening question-marks, each asked me "who?", and I wanted to respond, "yes!", but I...

So here she was, Mrs. (in those days that was still a safe guess and a safe mode of address) Cynic DeVille, puncturing a balloon I had carefully contrived to inflate. We watched the show, it did it's magic, but the bitter irony of an injection of stagelit "reality" has lingered within me since. The years have passed, and while they have been good years, blessed years, yet , though I have been absorbed in many things, I have observed in depth all too little, and the confluence of the two has come back seldom.

It was two years ago - we took a trip to the north. After we had spend a day or two revisiting our old haunts in Tzfat, I left the rest of of family in Tzfat and took Yinon, then a year shy of his Bar Mitzvah, to to Golan for a couple of days of father and son bonding. We heeded the suggestions of former colleague, long-time friend, and Land of Israel educator extrordinaire, Michael Evven-Esh, and found the ideal spot for camping and hiking. At the end of our first day, Yinon and I trudged into our homebase campsite exhausted but flushed with a feeling of accomplishment and adventure. We cooked up our meal, shared a brief campfire with a young family, and then I motioned to Yinon. We walk back to our car, parked a few dozen meters from the sparsely-peopled campsite, climbed up on the roof and laid there on our backs for a long time, looking at the sky.

I was with my son there. Yinon had never seen the sky like that. Neither had I.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Prime Lip

Today was the first day back at school, and I was debriefing Ayelet, our younger daughter, about the day's experience.

"Abba, the rav said that the gemara says something that, if the chachamim hadn't said it, no one else could have said it"
"What was that, Ayelet?" I wondered.
"They said that, 'because of the sin of profanity, choice young men die!'"

Ayelet was very upset because, well, she's Ayelet, a very sensitive young lady, whose brother happens to be one of those choice young serving in the IDF right now. She was shocked, she said, but now she wanted to make a sign of that teaching and hang it over her bed.

"But you don't have a problem with that, Ayelet", I reminder her.
"Sometimes, Abba, I call someone "m'fager" (= "REtard" of my youth)
"Well, I think it's a good idea to put up a blank poster on which you can hang a saying and then take it down after a while and a put a new one up". Quick thinking saves what's left of the paintjob and avoids the feeling of being peered down upon by a moralizing brow every time I'd walk into that room.

We looked up the saying together to locate its source (Shabbat 33a), and indeed, that's much of what it says there - the rest isn't any less choice. But it got me thinking about the notion of profanity itself. The English word comes from a Greek root meaning, "before [i.e., outside] the temple". In other words, beyond the sphere of religious ritual. Indeed, the word profane used to function no much differently than the word "secular" does today. Profane, then, is "that which is not relgious", not far from "vulgar", which originally meant "common".

The Hebrew term, however, used in the quote Ayelet brought home and ever since is, with slight variations, "nibul hapeh", which translates into English as the cumbersome, "making a carcass out of the mouth". Now this intrigues me for several reasons:

  • When the Torah describes the making of the first human being in Bershit [Genesis] 2:7, it states, "and He blew into his nostrils the soul-breath of life, and the man became a living being. Those Hebrew words, "nefesh chayah", are rendered by Onkylos as "ruach memalela", speaking wind/spirit. Note this definitive characterization of the human enterprise: living being = speaking wind/spirit. The mouth, then, engaged in the act of communication, is the instrument of life, moderating it's flow, shaping the raw potential of sound waves into the realized life-expression of speech in an act which, at once, conveys and evokes response: life calls forth life.
  • N'velah, or carcass, is a term not reserves primarily for the dead body of an animal found in the field. Rather, in its classical Halachic usage, it refers to the result of improper slaughter. A perfectly good, potentially Kosher and consumable animal can be rendered n'velah, or carcass, by the slip of a knife: its meat forbidden, it conveys impurity.
I've never had much of a taste for profanity. Even before embarking on a spiritual voyage that has taken me into the heart of my tradition (Baruch Hashem!), I didn't "cuss" much, and something about standing in the presence of profane expression, whether intensely expressed or casually tossed off, set me on edge in a jarring way.

Profanity means to be shocking, to be violent, to stop the action. In the flow of life that is human interaction, it is an attempt not only to capture the moment, but to take it captive, to rule over the situation, to mount it trophylike on the wall of one's pride. Profanity kills speech.

There is something that would be amusing if it weren't so upsetting about profanity: it claims its place as the ultimately powerful expressive act of speech, when, in fact, it actually SAYS NOTHING! There is no content, no real communication, only violence, insult, dehumanization, degradation. The process of creating the human has been reversed, and the divine breath withdrawn. The mouth has rendered itself a carcass!!

Ironically, the stark, overstated violence of the warning issued by the Talmudic statement, "because of the sin of profanity, choice young men die", borders on the profane itself, and Ayelet's rav recognized this implicitly by saying, "if the chachamim had not said this themselves, no one else could have said it". Could it be that the chachamim couched the warning about the spiritually deadly consequences of engaging in profanity in a manner all too embodying of that warning, to drive the point home viscerally? Ayelet's recoiling from the teaching certainly indicates this, and I would be a "m'fager" if I didn't agree...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Take me Chai-er

'Laizer at Wilderness City has a piece weighing in on the endless discussion of homosexuality and Judaism that I found engaging, but a certain spiritual inclination seemed to rear its head in his post that is perhaps best expressed by this short passage:

"The law aims to contain a volatile force - allow its positive expression, but keep it from finding its full, and damaging, expression."

Here's the comment I posted on his blog:

You write as though the channelling of sexual expression within a certain framework is basically a concession. Damage controll, containing a volitile substance. That sounds pretty familiar, but not essentially Jewish. "Better to marry than to burn with desire", Paul is supposed to have said somewhere in Christian scriptures.

But a classic of OUR tradition, Iggeret Hakodesh, sees the various guide-lines (hyphen intentional) as bringing sexuality UP to the realization of its true, ultimate potentiality in His service. In general, do we say that halachah CONTAINS our animal instincts, or ELEVATES them?

Mashal l'mah hadavar domeh? In the month of Elul, we do teshuva. There are (at least) two conflicting statements in the gemara regarding teshuva:

1) Great is teshuva, for it converts intentional transgressions to (merely) inadvertant ones.

2) Great is teshuva, for it converts intentional transgressions into MERITS!

Isn't this a contradiction asks the Gemara?

Not at all, it answers: in the former case, the teshuva is motivated by Yir'ah (meaning primarily FEAR of punishment, though it of course resonates with the higher harmonics of Awe and Divine vertigo); in the latter case, the teshuva is motivated by Ahavah (love - of Hashem, of course).

Likewise here, sexual expression channelled through halachah out of fear of the damage it can inflict when allowed to run out of control will at best achieve the containment it seeks, at the price of confining the Jew who constrains him/herself to a life of limited spiritual horizons. Sexual expression channelled through halachah because this is a vehicle to express love of Hashem in an unparalleled fashion, has the potential of transforming those two souls so astonishingly united such that, when the tide of holy presencing ebbs, the precious divine gifts deposited on the shore of one's soul become an integral and indispensible part of a newly discovered dimension of one's being, more finely orienting one toward Hashem.

Moshcheini - Acharecha Narutza! Draw me, WE shall run after You!

Monday, August 28, 2006


Yesterday was Rav Kook's yahrzeit, and I found myself carrying around a special book of his teachings - "Chadarav", this title taking from Shir Hashirim 1:4 - "hevi'ani hamelech chadarav" - the King brought me to His (innermost) chambers. In this precious book are collected some of the most reflective, insighful and intimately revealing teachings of Rav Kook - it is truly a gem. The editors chose the following midrash to open with:

"Just as the Holy One - praised be He! - has a room of rooms of rooms in His Torah, likewise do the Sages, each one of them, have a room of room of rooms in their Torah".

Last night we were invited to a sheva berachot meal for Shaya, the son of our neighbors, and his kallah, Dina. As I was eating the delicious meal and enjoying the company of our small neighborhood, I felt moved to share with the newlyweds the following thoughts, inspired by Rav Kook:

It is not only the Sages who have chambers within chambers in their minds and hearts filled with the teachings of the Divine. Every single person has within him/her a dazzling array of chambers, leading one to the next, connected in unexpected ways, each filled with glistening treasure never beheld before. But, sadly, it is the case that not only do we not discern such complexities, depths and riches when we behold our fellow human being, but the individual him/herself is often unaware of any but the level and a half closest to the surface. And when we do get a glimpse of something beckoning, something beyond, we also immediately sense the difficulties and the dangers in store for those who would try to explore their own depths: confusion, self-delusion, and wishf-fulfillment might lead us in endless circles.

And in truth, how CAN we presume to enter such places? If, indeed, there is a divine spark at the very core of our beings, perhaps we must leave it to burn in solitude, allowing its light to cast a safe, gentle illumination, much as we must shield the core of a nuclear reactor in order to derive benefit from the intensity of its power. Indeed, even that ultimate of inner chambers, the Holy of Holies of the Temple, the repose of the Shechina, was entered only once a year, only by the Kohen Gadol, who immediately surrounded himself with a swirling, intoxicating cloud of incense to shield him from the Presence. How deflating, just as one is about to behold the Divine with unparalleled immediacy, one's senses and orientation are clouded over, and one is whisked away.

Yet, there is another Kohen, the Kohen who burns the Red Heifer, which restores life by removing the pollution of death, which atones for the paradigmatic flight from divine immediacy, the sin of the Egel Hazahav. This kohen stands at a seemingly terrible remove from the innermost room of rooms - he stands on the Mount of Olives as he renders the Red Heifer into purifying dust. But the halacha stipulates that he must be standing such that his line of sight gives him an unoccluded view, through all the gates, throught courtyards and chambers and hallways, right up to the Holy of Holies. From here, from this vantage point, all is clear. What the Kohen Gadol cannot see from ground zero, the Kohen who burns the Red Heifer on the other side of the valley can show him.

Shaya and Dina, who could be farther apart that chatan and kallah. Each a separate person, with his/her own biography, history, family, friends, inclinations, idiosycracies. One is male, the other female, a world of difference right there. You met what seems like only a moment ago. How could there presume to be the makings of a union, a greater whole here. Is not each of us our own Kohen Gadol, ceaselessly braving the baffles of our own beings in search of those treasures waiting for us, preserved only for us, in the virgin territory of our own hearts.

The deep teaching of the Torah is that it is precisely that other Kohen, standing on the ridge seemingly so far away, that can show the other the way to his own core, by standing, gazing, yearing, refusing to run away, by being there. At that moment, there is the discovery of/return to the primal room when, forty days before birth, a heavenly voice rang out proclaiming a unity to be realized only years later: The daughter of this one is destined for that one!!

And, just like there is a special room, there is also a special moment - that moment that, unbeknownst to you, you knew. That is the "eit dodim" the moment of love, spoken of in Shir HaShirim. Can it be mere coincidence that, in gematria, Yeshayahu (your full, given name) and Dina add up to 470, the numerical value of "eit" (moment)?

May you both be blessed to guide each other to the ever-more splendid chambers of each others soul, with encouragement, with vision, with love.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Numb Dumb

"O.K., Hillel, you're a gibor, right? So here, we're going to put this inside your cheek, it tastes like bubblegum..." In such a fashion did the dentist attempt to calm my youngest, Hillel, as he approached the definitive moment of most young dental visits - - - the shot. And indeed, Hillel had been a gibor (Hebrew for brave, mighty hero) on the previous visit, when the dentist had install a crown into his almost 8-year-old mouth. The week before we had to rush to a different dentist who did non-quite emergency root canal work on this little boy's tooth. And what a gibor he was then, too.

But it's hard work being a gibor all the time, especially when it really does hurt, and you don't know what is waiting around the bend. So this time, Hillel's gibor batteries were a bit depleted, and the dentist could tell. Hillel wasn't so ready to cooperate and let him swab the injection site with a topica anesthetic to make the shot less painful, bubblegum taste or not. Finally, that accomplished, the dentist informed Hillel, "O.K., just a short poke...". Hillel whimpered, trying to hold it back, then gave a brief scream. "That's it, we're past the worst part", the dentist reassured the boy.

Wait for a moment till the xylocaine or whatever takes effect, and then procede. But, it seems, the sensitivity is still there, Hillel's reactions are obstructing progress. "Just a little bit more, one more poke..."

Hold on there!! Didn't you tell my son "we're past the worst part"? And you said that because you had gained his trust with your genuinely friendly demeanor, your smiles, your joking. So that, despite his apprehensions, he clings to your words hopefully, and a would-be scream is transformed into more of a squeal. And now, you're telling him, just one more poke? How do you expect him to believe you? What is he to make of your assurances in the future. Why did you... lie?

Now that's a harsh word. The dentist presumably really believed he wouldn't need a second injection, despite the fact that, sometimes, it is necessary. He was trying to get hold of the situation for the benefit of my son and, admittedly, for the sake of his own sense of professionalism, and, perhaps, with one eye on his scheduled subsequent patients. And yet, if he had paused to reflect that, perhaps, he might be causing damage to a child's ability to trust the adult into whose reassuring care he has been placed in moments of angst, he might have phrased things differently: "Just a quick poke and that's it, we probably will only need one".

Hmmn. I try to put myself in Hillel's place, and that doesn't sound so reassuring. And Hillel wants, needs that "don't-worry, I'm-here" certainty that eases him past the oncoming wave of anxiety that breaks over his head as the needle touches his cheek.

So I'm taking a different look at the exchange. Truth, factual truth, of course, has its place. But so does that act of speech that goes beyond factual truth to reach toward a truth born in connection. We are constantly telling "little lies" to ease people through a difficult patch, hoping the next one might be avoided even as we know how unlikely that is. Why, I did it tonight, when putting Hillel to bed. He shares a room with his older brother, Yinon, and, of late, Hillel has had trouble falling asleep without someone else in the room, and in the room, and, "are you still in the room?"

He called upstairs, asking, "Is Yinon coming?" "Yes, I answered, in a few minutes".

"Is Yinon coming?", I heard again much sooner than I had expected. "Yes, Hillel, just another few minutes".

"Where is Yinon?" came the call, after those "another few minutes" had passed. "He's in the shower, I'm sure he'll be down as soon as he's through".

And he was - - - but, of course, by then, Hillel was asleep.

He trusted me, as I stretched those "few minutes" time and time again. When he fell asleep, I want to believe that the truth of our interaction carried him into dreamland more faithfully than the dubious accuracy of the words of which it was constituted.

After the cavity was filled, Hillel picked out a little plastic recorder (the musical instrument) as his prize for being a gibor. And later, he agreed heartily with the other kids' assessment that the dentist was a very nice guy. Because, after all, the worst part was over - wasn't it??

Monday, August 21, 2006

Now I See

The phone rang later than it usually does at night. I answered, and it was my ophthalmologist calling. Earlier that week, I had dutifully fulfilled his dictates and had my retina photographed. I'd done it before on several occasions - it doesn't hurt per se, but it isn't very pleasant. Unless, that is, you enjoy staring directly at high-intensity flashlamps as they go off. After it was over, I was handed a CD with the pictures on it for my doctor to examine and compare to the previous set, taken a couple of years ago. So he was calling to tell me the results.

At 11 PM at night, I wondered? Yes, he said, he had come in to the office late to catch up on some work. He told me in medical terms what I already knew experientially: there were changes in the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer that underlies the retina itself, and that would account for the visual distortions I reporting from my left eye.

I've had high myopia since childhood, about -12 prism diopters for those to whom such numbers are meaningful (by comparison, above - 2 means you can't read the big E on the chart). For years I've dealt with the phenomenon of floaters - floating shapes and spots that are formed as the vitreous humor that filled the eye is stretched by the myopically elongated eyeball. You get used to each new floater as they come. But over a year ago, I started noticing that straight lines seemed a bit bent in the center when view through my left eye. My doc would examine the retina on eacy semi-annual visit and he saw no changes, so life went on. The distortions became a bit more extensive, and a patch of the central field of vision in my left eye became ever so slightly grainy, but the retina looked the same, so life went on.

Until that night. My doctor told me that his preliminary diagnosis was myopic age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in its dry form. The macula is at the center of the retina, and in high myopia, it can be stretched to a point where the light-sensitive cells are compromised, eventually resulting in blind spots toward the center of vision. There is currently no treatment for this most common form of macular degeneration, although this form tends to progress more slowly than the wet form, which makes up only 10% of the cases, but accounts for 90% of legal blindness due to macular degeneration. The wet form, while potentially more severe, has various treatment options; the dry form has none, although a diet rich in lutein (a pigment found in the RPE) and anti-oxidants (green leafy vegetables) has been observed to arrest or slow the progress of dry AMD in a number of cases.

The doctor agreed that it could be useful to consult a retinal specialist and reassured me that there is no reason why I shouldn't hope to see well for another twenty years.

It wasn't til the next morning that I realize that this week was Parashat Re'eh - the Torah portion which begins with the words, "See, I am setting before you a blessing and a curse".

And I suddenly realized: seeing can be both a blessing and a curse. Now don't get me wrong, I am not engaging in anticipatory sour grapes. I want so much to preserve my visual acuity (after corrective lenses!) for all the reasons you can imagine - I teach texts for a living; I'm loath to give up either reading or computer use, though I could cut down on the latter! I want to see, G-d willing, my grandchildren someday as they grow. etc., etc. But I am also keenly aware that seeing is also an act filtering out, of exclusion, of a subjective projection of the needs of one's person onto reality, onto others. The last paragraph of the Shema warns us, "do not go astray after your hearts/minds and after your eyes" in this order, we are told, because the heart desires and, only then, does the eye see. "You only see what you want to see", we chastise others.

Indeed, with reality such a swirling multitude of ever-changing visual imputs, all needing our brain's image processing to be made sense of, it could hardly be otherwise. To see everything is to see nothing. But, could it be that the reverse is also true: to see nothing is to see everything?

Rabbi Nachman makes this point powerfully in Likkutei Mohoran I:65. There, he explains that to see the ultimate goal, one has to squint. The eye doesn't have the power to go and fetch that most distant point, because of all the images and inputs from the side that enter into the wide-open eye and distract and confuse. Therefore, one must exclude all of that visual "white noise" by reducing the input dramatically. Ultimately, he claims, one must close one's eyes entirely (the context in whichi he is speaking is the squinting in pain when one is in great suffering), so as to see beyond the deceptions of this world and its seductions, to see that, ultimately, all is for the good.

All is for the good. I cannot tell you how long the mantra-like invocation of that achievement of the spirit told of only a few of our greatest sages has bugged me. When someone would mention that regarding a mundane hassle, I would think (not actually wishing it on them, of course), yeah, what if something REALLY heavy hit you over the head?); So often, I've heard it in the following kind of setting: plony was really upset that he had misplaced his watch, so he looked and looked until he lost track of time, only to realize that he was late for his meeting. Grumbling in anger, he raced off to the bus stop just in time to miss the only bus that could get him to the meeting on time - setting off paroxysms of anger that didn't subside until he heard the sound of the bus exploding in the center of town. See, you lose your watch, but all is for the good. I still insist that such a reading of the famous dictum, selfishly oblivious as it is to the suffering of others, is theologically offensive in the extreme.

And yet: there is another way to see things - literally. I've come to realize that, too often, in fact, constantly, I see events, people, developments, interactions, possibiities in a miserly fashion. I look at them through MY eyes. I don't shut out the confusion of MY world, as it drums away from the sideline, insisting on setting the context of every encounter. Rather, I'm constantly capturing, framing, delimiting, identifying. I refuse to let being be. I refuse to really see.

A sea-change has come over me - a new chapter, full of promise, frought with danger. I don't know what will be with my eyes. I do know that, even as I consult with a retinal specialist and eat lots of green vegetables, I don't want to pray to Hashem to preserve my vision because I can't see myself without it. Rather, I want, and do, oh constantly, do pray to Hashem that He help me open my inner I, so tightly shut for so long, so that whatever He in His wisdom wishes me to see of His world and His creatures, and with whatever degree of acuity He grants me, I view them with love and compassion, seeing in them the fullness of His blessing.