Guest Column by Rabbi Paul Kerbel

The themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are familiar to us: repentance and return, forgiveness and atonement, our ability to reflect, to self-assess, to change and return.

Our High Holiday mahzor focuses on G-d as king and Creator of the universe (and we celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world), the symbol and meaning of the shofar, and the importance of memory and forgiveness.

Rabbi Paul Kerbel

Rabbi Paul Kerbel

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has taught me that tikkun olam is also a vital theme of these Days of Awe.

But there is another theme, not immediately seen on the surface but imbedded in our Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, that I encourage us to reflect on. Rosh Hashanah focuses on sight, insight and vision.

One could argue that these Days of Awe encourage us to experience these holy days with all of our senses: the smell of the fresh, round challah we eat at the beginning of the holiday meal, the taste of apples and honey carrying the wish for a sweet year, the touch of extending hands of friendship and welcome in the synagogue and to our family and friends, and the sounds of the shofar.

But if we read not only the Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah, but in context the series of narratives from Genesis Chapters 16 to 22, the word and sense that appear the most often are forms of the word “to see.”

“See” — in Hebrew, ra-ah or ro-eh — is a watchword of all of these portions in the middle of the Book of Genesis.

The portions we read on Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 21 and 22, focus on the themes of remembrance (G-d remembered Sarah by enabling her to have a son, Isaac) and faith in G-d (exquisitely presented in the story of the binding of Isaac in Chapter 22). Ultimately, these stories about the first family of Judaism reflect the themes of many families: jealousy, favoritism, infertility, heritage and inheritance.

Throughout these narratives, sight and vision play an important part. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and the south and the east and the west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever” (Genesis 13:14).
  • After a marital spat between Abraham and Sarah regarding Hagar in Genesis 16:13, Hagar calls G-d “El Ro’i” because He has seen and heard her.
  • The Torah portion we read from on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Vayera, begins: “G-d appeared to Abraham” (Genesis 18:1).
  • Most important in the selection we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah from this portion, the word “see” appears at least three times, as when G-d opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well of water.
  • As we read about the binding of Isaac, the Torah says, “Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar.” And, at the end of this chilling portion, when G-d stops Abraham from fulfilling his act of faith, the Torah teaches, “Abraham looked up, his eyes fell on a ram. … Abraham named that place Behar Adonai Yay-ra-eh, on the mountain where I saw G-d” or “on the mountain of G-d, there is vision.”

What we learn from reading these portions on Rosh Hashanah and when we read parshiyot Lech Lecha and Vayera in November is how much our senses — seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and touching — play a role in what it means to be a human being and feel G-d’s presence.

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, wrote a series of essays on the Bible, which he and Franz Rosenzweig translated into German.

Buber wrote an essay titled, “Abraham the See-er.” After quoting many of the sources I just shared with you, Buber wrote: “We are shown the perfection of seeing — as seeing and as being seen — as one. The prophet of our day was formerly called ‘a seer.’ Of the two titles — seer and prophet — seer is the older, as seen in the Book of Samuel. Abraham becomes a prophet, but a seer is what he was from the very first moment when ‘G-d let Himself be seen.’ ”

As a seer, Abraham goes on to achieve the perfection of seeing. The symbols of this seeing (in all the stories we are referring to) become united for us into one mighty “theme-word.”

The Torah teaches that Hagar was crying when she and Ishmael ran out of water. “Then G-d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, after G-d calls out Abraham’s name and Abraham responds hineini (“here I am”), He tells Abraham, “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do anything to him.”

“When Abraham looked up, his eyes fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket.”

Did G-d create the well for Hagar, or was it there and she could not see it? Was the ram in the thicket during the entire story of the binding of Isaac, or did G-d use some “Star Trek”-type transporter to beam the ram to the top of the mountain exactly when Abraham needed one?

We know the answer: The things we need are in front of us, if we only recognize them, appreciate them, take advantage of them.

The spiritual question I would like for us to think about on this Rosh Hashanah: What do we see in front of us? What do we see in life? Do we see reasons to grumble or be grateful? Do we feel that the cup is half-full or half-empty?

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote a sermon over 60 years ago titled “What Did You See?”

He wrote: “When you look at life, do you see only your own life and your needs, or do you see the lives and needs of others as well? Do you see life as a campaign for acquisition or as an adventure in sharing? How do you regard your fellow human being? One whose main function in life is to serve as a stepping-stone to your success or someone with hopes and needs just like yourself? One more question? When you look at life, do you look at it with fear or faith?

The Torah portion we read in part has, in total, 147 verses. The pneumonic given by the rabbis for the number 147 is emunah, the Hebrew word for faith and a summary of the test of Abraham.

Abraham was ready to give everything he had for G-d.

Rabbi Greenberg concluded his sermon with these words: “The cardinal irreverence in Judaism is to be afraid of life, for when we fear life, we betray a lack of faith in G-d. To believe in G-d is to have faith that G-d, amidst all vicissitudes, G-d will give us the strength to endure, the power to hold on and see it through.”

On Rosh Hashanah, may we be like Abraham the “See-er.” May we look upon this new year with faith and optimism, vision and insight.

May we see in the new year the aspiration of all of the potential and the possibilities it brings — the opportunity to open our eyes to new love and new friendships, new careers, or growth and learning in our chosen profession and volunteer positions. And may we do so with faith and trust in G-d, with a commitment to live a meaningful life with our eyes wide open to the possibilities the new year brings to us.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are seeing and being seen by everyone we know. That includes G-d. G-d sees us here. G-d is happy, but He also cares about what we do with this High Holiday experience. Let’s see how we can make 5777 the best year it can be.

Rabbi Paul Kerbel is the associate rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., after serving 12 years as the associate rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb and as a leader of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Kerbel recently was appointed to serve on the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA Federation of New York.