Welcome to 2020!
I have, in my lifetime, occasionally counted down to midnight on Dec. 31st at large and small parties and toasted the arrival of a new secular (Christian calendar, really) year with bubbly beverages and cheers. That said, it probably doesn’t surprise you that the New Year I resonate with most as richly alive with personal and shared significance is the Jewish calendar’s marking of a year ending and a new year beginning, along with the modes of reflection, celebration and resolutions that it invites. But being the rabbi that I am, I can’t pass up commenting on 2020, a date that calls out for commentary the way that our Sages tell us that thick, layered phrases in the Torah yell out off the page, “Darsheni!/ Interpret me!” So here are some thoughts on the significance of 2020.
We use “20/20” to refer to vision that is clear and accurate, 20 feet from the object you’re looking at. As a young adult, I realized I no longer had 20/20 vision when I walked past the sign at the park swimming pool that said “No Fishing”, stopped short, walked back, squinted at it and realized it actually said, “No Pushing.” We use this physical trait as a metaphor when we say, usually with regret and resignation, that “hindsight is 20/20”. We acknowledge that now that all the factors that were uncertain, unknown and could have gone any number of ways have unfolded, we can see the choice we could have made and how things could have turned out differently. It’s a statement of wishing we knew then what we know and see now.
With Chanukah just a couple weeks past us, its teachings are still with me, continuing to shape the ways I think about and experience seeing, literally and metaphorically. According to the Talmud, the time for lighting Chanukah candles is between sunset and when the last person has left the marketplace. The Talmud’s poetic language for the later time is “when regel/feet have ceased in the marketplace.” (Talmud Shabbat 21b) – late enough that the flames can be seen in the dark, and for as long as there are people walking around outside who can see them in your window.
Kedushat Levi, the 18th century Polish Hasidic master, interprets this halacha/Jewish law about timing as spiritually and morally significant. He notes that the central practice of Chanukah is seeing. We are not permitted to make any ordinary use of the light of the candles (for reading or other functional tasks). We may only look at them. But this is no ordinary action of the eyes. Kedushat Levi interprets the word ‘regel/foot’ to direct us toward a deeper practice, looking at the candles until our her’gel/habit “leaves the marketplace.” In looking at the Chanukah candles, we are practicing looking, seeing, until our habits of perception cease from viewing everything as an object for our use or our ownership. We keep looking until we can see the inherent value in everything and everyone around us. We keep looking until our habits of only seeing surfaces shift and we can see sacred and unitive Life animating whatever we turn your gaze toward.
This practice of seeing deeply and of observing our habits of perception is not limited to Chanukah. I’ve just returned from a week-long meditation retreat, spending hours and days without the usual distractions and stimuli to be able to practice observing with greater sensitivity, to watch the habits of my mind, and to be more attuned to what is unfolding around me and within me so that I can respond to it all with greater wisdom, sympathy and care. I like the intention of the year 2020 being a year of conscious vision and mindful observing. We will have to slow down enough, get quiet and still enough to observe with attention and care. We will need to practice noticing when the world makes us afraid, angry or despairing, observing our habitual reactions and discerning effective responses. We will have to be deliberate in turning our gaze toward manifestations of generosity, courage and beauty, ensuring that our picture of reality includes all this goodness too. We will need to keep looking until we can see the ripples of impact that our choices will create down the road. In other words, we can’t wait for 20/20 vision to appear in the rearview mirror of our lives. This year, let’s train ourselves to see the present with clarity so that we can act in the present with greater foresight and greater insight (pun intended).
Opportunities for 20/20 practice: Join us for the Jewish Meditation series on Shabbat mornings this winter. I also want to encourage you to consider spending the summer with me in NYC at Romemu Yeshiva, spending 6 weeks integrating meditation and other Jewish spiritual practices, text study and arts workshops.