Seeing and being seen...

NOTE:  It is weird to be sitting in my Berkshire study today in anticipation of a major storm that holds the potential to be wildly destructive. It could be the worst in our area in over 50 years is the prediction, but now it is sunny and sweet. Very, very strange...

So, last night we went to see a production of "My Name Is Asher Lev," at the Barrington Stage (check it out @ We have been Chaim Potok fans for many years - and this book is a favorite. The story is near to my heart - Dianne's, too - as a young, religious artist wrestles with how to nurture his gift while remaining true to God.  This rendition, written and directed by Aaron Posner, was faithful to the story and deeply engaging.   Each of the actors were brilliant and precise as they played their respective roles - one Asher Lev and the other two various characters Lev encounters including his mother and father. Three parts of the story were particularly gripping to me:

+ The saga of how one generation not only misunderstands the other, but also personalizes this ebb and flow of embracing the other only to run away.  In this story, young Asher Lev has an uncanny ability to draw and paint - something his politically engaged Hasid father cannot comprehend - and poppa regular interprets the young artist's calling as a personal repudiation of everything he holds near and dear.  It was agonizing to watch this timeless battle between father and son.  It was equally wrenching to see the ripening artist come to grieve over the pain he has caused his parents: not only did this journey towards artistic maturity cause anger and alienation, but his life's work - two family portraits utilizing a contemporary crucifixion -  was so outside the norm of the Hasidic aesthetic as to bewilder and shame those he loved most deeply.

+ The mentoring of young Asher by an older, secular Jew - with the explicit blessing of his community's Rebbe - was tender and insightful.  But the old religious leader embraced the child's sacred gift - and sought out the best teacher - even while knowing this act would cause problems in the artist's home and the wider spiritual family.  It also caused a crisis of identity for Asher Lev, too:  he had to physically leave his traditional home in Brooklyn for Paris before he was given "eyes to see and ears to hear" what was going on within his soul.  Once away from his tradition, however, he found a way to embrace and challenge it in pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty.  That this meant acknowledging and interpreting the presence of darkness and evil in his art rocked his traditional foundation - and opened him to something more profound.

+ And his willingness to become a "genre bender" was something I was delighted to see having forgotten this part of the story completely.  In a word, Lev realizes that only his interpretation of Christ on the Cross is agonizing and beautiful enough to show others the world of his family's love and agony. The crucifixion - so artistically outside the Hasidic heart but so intricately woven through the tapestry of their history, too - became the only way to express the artist's deepest truth.  So he paints his mother on what appears to be the cross panes of the window she waited at for most of her life in her Brooklyn home - with his father and himself attending her agon.

Such an expression, of course, repelled his parents - who eventually come to sense that his paintings are true but only in the most painful ways - who become mute in his presence by the end of the performance.  But they are also able to physically embrace him as a person of integrity.  The final soliloquy reasserts that Asher Lev is a practicing and faithful Jew who is also an artist in the modern world.

It seems that at the core of this play is the quest to learn to see and be seen.  One of the finest writers in the United Church of Christ, Anthony Robinson, recently put it like this in a daily reflection that appears on-line.  Robinson begins with a quote from Exodus:

"The people of Israel, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God. God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the people of Israel and God knew . . ."

Is there a difference between looking and seeing? Or between seeing and really seeing?Here, as the Exodus story begins, we read that God "saw." The Hebrew word is ra'ah. It does not refer to a look or a glance. It means to begin to move toward another with kindness or sympathy. God really saw the suffering slaves in Egypt. He moved toward them.

In a novel I was reading recently a woman who had been a waitress for fifty years, which is an awful long time to be on your feet like that, was asked about her memories of a particular customer, a naval officer. She says, "He actually saw me, if I can put it like that." The implication was that few of her customers, few of the other high-ranking officers where she worked, did actually see her. She was not seen by the others as a person.

There's seeing and there's really seeing. There's eye contact and there is moving toward another with kindness or sympathy.Often privilege and power, rank or status, as well as plain-old self-centeredness, keep people from really seeing or really hearing another person.

How remarkable, then, that our God and God's power is not like that at all. Our God sees, really sees, the suffering and the lowly. Our God's power is not manifest as distance or not getting involved or sending orders. Our God enters in, moves toward us, in kindness and sympathy. God doesn't just look, God sees.

Prayer:  God, forgive me for the many times when I only look but do not see. Grant me grace today to really see and to move toward another person in kindness. Amen.

My small clergy group - two rabbis and two pastors - spoke of this, too when we gathered last week.  How do we remain awake and engaged enough to see both ourselves and others as we truly are? There were no clear answers, but talking about the challenge was helpful - and brought us closer, too.  We are all wrestling with balance and rhythm in our lives no matter how long we've been clergy; that truth in itself is almost enough to evoke some inner peace, yes?

As this "program year" comes to a close for me I am thinking a great deal about the call to see and be seen - for my ministry, of course - but also for the faith community in our "new year."  Let's see where this takes us after the storm, yes?

photo credit:


Black Pete said…
"And he saw them" Chaim Potok insisted that there is a powerful difference between looking and seeing, and in my favourite of his, The Book of Lights, he uses the above phrase (as well as its counterpart) throughout the book. I pray to see, not only to look--it's easy to look, hard to see.

May Irene spare your community.
RJ said…
Thank you, dear man. We just cancelled worship tomorrow expecting the worst of the storm at about 10 am. I have to find Book of Lights and read it; it has been way too long.

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