All Barb Zaplotney wanted was for someone to see her. To see HER. Not her wheelchair. Not her disability. To see HER. Barb. The woman who was paralyzed in a car accident a dozen years ago, her spinal cord severed at the T-10 vertebra.
That’s all. Was that too much to ask? Was it too much to ask that some of the staff at the rehab facility stop referring to her as “T-10” and call her by name?
“I felt like they only saw my diagnosis and didn’t see me as a human being,” she said recently at a program at Saint Francis University. “We are not our diagnoses.”
Barb Zaplotney is not alone, though over the years she often felt like it. None of us likes to be ignored. None of us wants to be stereotyped. None of us deserves to be “essentialized” – a word I used last night. “Essentialized” means seeing another person as “essentially” something “other” – something inferior. Broken. Disabled. Unworthy of our attention.
Every one of us needs to be seen and appreciated for who we are. Every one of us yearns for connections to other people – dynamic relationships that make us feel loved and special. And every one of us, at one time or another, has been frustrated trying to make that connection.
Why is it so hard? What’s the missing ingredient? It’s not a secret. It’s looking – really looking – into another person’s eyes.
Seeing another person – really looking at them – used to be considered an essential part of building relationships. It still is. Think of a baby staring at the face of a mom or dad – and breaking out in a broad grin, and giggling just at the site of them. That’s our natural instinct as human beings. But it’s an instinct that somehow decays over time.
It used to be so natural to smile at a stranger on the street and have them smile back. Not any more. More often than not, I find that people look away, or move away, as quickly as they can. It’s like they equate seeing with spying. It’s uncomfortable – or downright creepy.
Even in situations where you’d think eye contact would be essential – it doesn’t happen. When’s the last time you checked out at Wal-Mart and had the checker greet you and look you in the eye and smile and acknowledge that they are there to serve you?
Or do you just skip the whole personal interaction thing and go to the self-check line instead?
In a world where so many of us have trouble shifting our eyes from our cell-phone screens – where texting and messaging has replaced actual one-on-one, face-to-face conversation — we’ve gotten out of practice of making basic eye contact. Of being able to read non-verbal signals that can tell us how a person is really feeling. Is she looking thin and tired? Is he having trouble walking? Is her smile touched with sadness? You can’t get that out of text. You can only get it by lifting your eyes and seeing.
But we don’t. And I think that’s really sad.
So today, a day when we feel that our very lives depend on our ability to make powerful connections and mend important relationships – with God and with one another – using our God-given gift of sight becomes more important than ever.
The fact is that each of us has an infinite capability for goodness that we can visualize – and then actualize – through this gift of sight. It’s so powerful that it’s highlighted in a prayer that traditionally recited right before Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur Eve. That prayer, T’filah Zakah, focuses on how we have mis-used our limbs and our organs to hurt other people. It forces us to evaluate ourselves, head to toe, and recognize how much damage we have done – and how we ought to use those same parts of our body to repent, to mend and to heal.
This prayer happens not to be included in the prayer book we use here. But I’ve been working through it this year. And here’s how the operative part of it goes:
בָּרָֽאתָ בִּי עֵינַֽיִם, וּבָהֶם חוּשׁ הָרְאוּת, לִרְאוֹת בְּהֶם מַה שֶׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה . . .
You have gifted me with eyes, and with them the sense of sight, so that I might see through them what is written in Your Torah, imbuing them with sanctity as they look upon every holy word.
We focus our eyes too much, says the prayer, on objects we covet, or people we belittle – when we ought to be concentrating our sight on the mitzvot of the Torah that You’ve given us in love.
And what is in the Torah that’s so important? As it turns out, the gift of sight itself is a prominent theme of our Scriptural readings throughout these Days of Awe.
Remember the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac that we read on Rosh Hashanah? Twice, the Torah tells us Vayisa Avraham et-einav: “Abraham lifted his eyes.” The first time, we read that, vayar et ha-making mey-ra-khok – “he saw the place from afar “– meaning, the mountaintop where God directed him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. The second time, we read, va’yar v-hinei ayil, “behold there was a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns,” whom he sacrificed instead of Isaac.
Sight is so crucial in this story that Abraham names the spot Adonai Yireh – God sees. Without using his gift of sight, Abraham would never have proven his worth to God. He would never have seen his son inherit his relationship with God. Had Abraham not lifted his eyes, the Jewish people would not exist at all.
The gift of sight here signifies the gift of faith – the faith of a man who believed that God would redeem them both. And the faith of God in the man that God had chosen.
On Yom Kippur, this gift of faith is tested. Today, God demands that we lift our eyes and witness our betrayal of one another. Our prayers require us to look at the brokenness of cities, the pollution of the air, water and land; to see the way we make weapons of war – fashioning spears out of pruning hooks. We acknowledge we have shut our eyes to our neighbors. The poor beggar. The homeless veteran. The abused child. And, yes, the woman in a wheelchair who wants only for others to see her for who she is.
In this afternoon’s Torah reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus 19, God demands:
וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:
Do not place a stumbling block before a person who is blind; but revere Your God, for I am Adonai.
Now, blindness can be literal, and physical. But blindness can also be ignorance, or foolishness, or naivete. A stumbling block can be a physical barrier. But also it can be abuse or manipulation or exploitation by someone who is deliberately taking advantage, or inflicting cruelty – and then ignoring the consequences.
Either way, God insists that the iveir be treated with respect. Someone who cannot see must not be abused by someone who chooses not to see.
And in this afternoon’s Haftarah, we learn of the prophet Jonah, one who chose not to see.
In this story, God has pronounced the punishment of destruction on the wicked people of Nineveh. But then it all changes:
וַיַּרְא הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם כִּי־שָׁבוּ מִדַּרְכָּם הָרָעָה . . .
God SAW what the people were doing – that they had turned away from their evil ways – and God renounced the punishment planned for them and did not carry it out.
But rather than raising his eyes, as Abraham did, Jonah refused to see. He already had “essentialized” the people of Nineveh as evil and unworthy. He ran away, into the wilderness. And the story ends with God chastising his prophet for his lack of care and concern for other human beings. Care he might have felt had he simply been willing to turn his eyes on the city – as God did – and look at the people and see how they had changed.
Do we look? Or do we look away? Are we strong enough to not to “essentialize” and stereotype, and make presumptions – but, rather, to see each human being as uniquely created in the image of God? Are we strong enough to look in each other’s eyes and see, in the other, the reflection of God we see in ourselves.
Because, if we are, we will be compelled to behave with kindness and care. And that is exactly what God teaches us through this verse in the Book of Proverbs:
תְּנָה בְנִי לִבְּךָ לִי וְעֵינֶיךָ דְּרָכַי תִּצְּרְֹנָה:
Give your mind to me, my son; Let your eyes watch My ways.
Do we look? – or do we look away? Are we strong enough to take on the responsibility God gave us, or not?
The movie producer, Brian Grazer, has just written a whole best-selling book about this, called Face to Face. His premise is very simple.
“In a world where our attention is too often focused downward or elsewhere, simply lifting your eyes to meet another’s gaze can be transformative… (When you) hold eye contact, notice how your interactions change. And watch as it makes others feel more respected, heard, seen, and valued.”
That is what the gift of sight can do. And you don’t have to be sick or tired or in a wheelchair to feel the marvelous gift of another’s eyes seeing you for who and what you are. You just have to be . . . human.
In this morning’s Torah reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, God uses the language of sight to remind us of our obligations to ourselves, and to others:
רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַחַיִּים וְאֶת־הַטּוֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת־הָרָע
Behold! See! I lay out before you today life and good, or death and evil, blessing and curse – that you may choose life — and live.
Every single one of us has the power to bless others as we would wish to be blessed. To value others as we wish to be valued. To see others as we would wish to be seen. All we need to do is lift our eyes.
Let this gift compel us, through teshuvah, to make this a world we are proud to behold.
And let us say together: Amen.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Genesis 22:4
 Genesis 22:13
 Jonah 3:10
 Proverbs 23:26
 Deuteronomy 30:19