Why do we cover our eyes during the Shema? Our tradition teaches that it is to avoid distraction and focus at this central time in prayer. Moreover, the Shema is a prayer about listening, and we can listen more intently when not looking; the limitation of one sense often makes others keener.
We read the paper and learn of deprivation we will never see with our own eyes. It is hard enough to help a neighbor; how can we imagine helping people in other lands, who speak a different language and live in a foreign culture?
In this month of Elul, when we prepare for Rosh HaShanah, we are reminded that our highest destiny is to face life’s pains and prevail, over and over again. Stamina, not giftedness, is the most precious attribute of character. Resilience is the strain of spiritual DNA that distinguishes those who build lives of purpose and beauty.
When God wishes to choose leaders, the Rabbis teach, God looks to see how they tend sheep. Jacob, Moses and David were all shepherds. This rabbinic teaching reminds us how important it is to be kind to those whom we do not need. But let’s take it more literally: how nice are you to sheep?
The Kaddish may be the best-known Jewish prayer and yet its purpose is mysterious. Though it is the mourning prayer, it makes no mention of death. Rather what it proclaims is the greatness and sanctity of God and God’s name.
My teacher Simon Greenberg once explained the great innovation of the Ten Commandments. He explained that the first four are the justification for the last six. In other words, he told us, the Ten Commandments introduced the world to the idea that God cares most how we treat one another.
In his classic history of art, Ernest Gombrich offers a powerful insight into life while discussing Botticelli’s famous “Birth of Venus.” Botticelli deliberately misproportioned Venus, and Gombrich notes that the figure emerging from the half shell is more beautiful for her flaws: “the unnatural length of her neck, the steepfall of her shoulders...” The painter’s Venus is less correctly drawn than his predecessors, but his alterations “enhance the impression of an infinitely tender and delicate being.”
Ruins are a catalyst to imagination. When we see the remains of an old building or civilization we can imagine what once stood in that place. Should you travel this summer, notice the inspiration of lost splendor. Gaps and flaws and remnants are the spur to vision.