Monday, September 26, 2011

Seeing Yad Hashem in the World

Remember those "Magic Eye" books?
A few years back, these books were all the rage. You've seen them – pictures of seemingly blurry blotches of nothing, but if you look at the picture in just the right way from the proper distance, you begin to see that there's a picture inside the picture, hiding in plain sight.
If you never figured out how to properly "see" the hidden image, these books are infuriating. After all, your friends stare at a page for a second and then say, "Whoa! Look at that!" And no matter how long you look, you can't see anything at all. But it's not that you can't see the picture. You're looking straight at it. You just haven't learned how to look at it in the manner which will allow you to see the picture inside the picture. With enough practice, a person can indeed learn to see the picture in the picture.
These Magic Eye books are a great metaphor for spiritual life.
We live our lives knowing that God plays an intimate, direct role in our lives, aware of the fact that God's firm grasp continues to guide klal yisrael. And yet, we cannot see what's right in front of our eyes. Like those "magic" pictures, the keys lies in learning how to look for what we see but cannot identify. How can we learn to see the Hand of God in the world? Rav Kook, commenting on a beautiful Aggadah, provides an fascinating suggestion.
The Gemara (erachot 58a) tells the story of ben Zoma, and the proper attitude towards the acts of kindness that others perform for us.
He used to say: What does a good guest say? 'How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!' But what does a bad guest say? 'How much after all has mine host put himself out? I have eaten one piece of bread, I have eaten one slice of meat, I have drunk one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and his children!' What does Scripture say of a good guest? "Remember that you magnify his works, where of men have sung." (Job 35:24)  But of a bad guest it is written: "Men do therefore fear him; [he regards not any that are wise of heart]". (37:24)
It's so easy to write off the things that other people do for us, as his "bad guest" so easily does. After all, they didn't make the effort for us - they made if for themselves. But all too often, we take this attitude not with our hosts, but with those we love the most - a spouse, a parent, a sibling or friend - we just take them for granted, which we should never allow ourselves to do. If we took the time to focus on the effort that goes into meeting our daily needs, and appreciating the good that others do on our behalf, we'd be much happier, content and more fulfilled.
It's a beautiful Gemara. But Rav Kook, in his commentary Ein Ayah on the Aggadah, sees ben Zoma's lesson as a critical key to seeing God's hand in the world.
Rav Kook begins his essay by noting that the issue of whether to believe in God's Hand in the world or not is not an intellectual question. It's not a matter than can be proved or disproved. "Rather, these two [attitudes] are dependent on the condition of the soul, whether for good or for bad…" How then do we learn to see God's goodness in the world? We do this through practice, by learning to see the good in those around us.
…the pure soul, which is ready to do good, will look upon the Divine influence with a good eye, for his soul will see that God's will is only to bring good. And where does this goodness come from, if not from the Divine light that is good and bestows good. Therefore, he will be certain that all is done for the good, and those seemingly negative events in the world have an ultimate positive end.
In essence, the way we look at the world at large is the very same way that we'll see the people who surround us. If we see God's goodness in the world, we'll also see that goodness in the actions of our fellow man. And, if we refuse to see the Hand of Hashem in the world, we won't see goodness or kindness in the things others do for us either.
Yet, the opposite rule also applies. If we can learn to see the goodness in the small things, that positive attitude will spread as well to the way we look at the world. In essence, if we can learn to not only see, but appreciate the small acts of kindness that others do for us in life, we'll train ourselves not only to see small acts of goodness in the world, but the big ones as well. In a nutshell, the more goodness we learn to see, the more we'll see it all around us.
How many kindnesses do we allow to go unnoticed? How many times has a loved one gone out of his or her way on our behalf, and we just took it for granted? How many times has a neighbor done us that small favor – one which we forgot to acknowledge? Think about the small kindnesses built into the fabric of daily life: someone cooked us dinner (and if you cooked it, odds are that someone else earned it.) Someone made sure to post the schedule of davening in shul. Someone took the time to ensure that the community tiyyul arrangements were properly addressed. The list goes on and on. And it's not their job. They weren't doing it anyway. (That's what ben Zoma's "bad guest" says, remember?) They did us a kindness, and we didn't even notice.
And then we wonder why we cannot see the larger, hidden good, when we fail to pay attention to the obvious acts of kindness happening right in front of us!
How then can we learn to see something we know is there but invisible all the same? Like those "Magic Eye" books, the answer lies in knowing how and what to look for. When we start focusing on all of the good in our lives; when we begin to see the small acts of kindness and goodness that surround us, we'll begin to train our eyes to see that which was already there: the Divine goodness of God, guiding us and bestowing goodness upon us, our families, and Klal Yisrael.