2nd day Rosh HaShanah sermon 5772/2011: "Change your perspective, see the invisible gorilla"

Ten years ago, two experimental psychologists at Harvard, named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, created what has become one of the most famous experiments in the behavioral sciences.

Before you read further, you may want to try this demonstration: 

The participants in this study in the study were given a simple task. They just had to watch a brief video that included several people passing basketballs back and forth to each other. Three of these players were wearing white shirts, and three were wearing black shirts.

The task was simple:  watch the ball that was being passed among the players with the white shirts, and count how many times the basketball was passed. This was not such a difficult task - most people came up with the right number.

But then, the participants were asked: did you notice anything unusual about this video?  A majority of participants said, no, not particularly.  But - if you watch the video again -- you see that right in the middle of this basketball game, strolls a person wearing a gorilla costume.  He walks to the very center of the court, beats his chest a couple of times, and walks away.  And more than 50% of the participants in the study had absolutely no idea, which is why this experiment became known as the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment.  You couldn’t imagine that you could be oblivious to something as unusual as a person in a gorilla costume. But the participants were so focused on the task at hand, that it crowded out all other information.  They saw only what they expected to see.

The psychologists gave a name to this phenomenon – they called it ‘inattentional blindness.’  (see http://www.amazon.com/Invisible-Gorilla-Other-Intuitions-Deceive/dp/0307459659) So many participants were blind to the gorilla because they simply were focusing on other things, and they were oblivious to anything they did not expect to see.

Now I was paying pretty close attention to our Torah readings yesterday and today - these biblical readings with which the Jewish people have welcomed thousands of new years. And I can say with certainty that our torah readings contain no invisible gorillas. But the invisible gorilla phenomenon, however, is not unknown in the Torah.

First, in the torah reading we read yesterday.  You’ll remember that Abraham has sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.  For whatever the reason, they are given insufficient water, and the water runs out.  Hagar fears that her son Ishmael is going to die of thirst.  But then, at the last possible moment, an angel of God calls out to Hagar, and tells her that God has heard the cries of the child, and they will be saved.

Usually, when we tell the story, we understand the next thing that happens as a miracle -- suddenly, a well of water appears, to revive Ishmael and Hagar.  But that’s not exactly what the Torah says.  What we ACTUALLY read yesterday, was “ויפקח אלקים את עיניה ותרא באר מים - God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw the well of water.”  The implication is that the well was there all along, but for some reason Hagar was unable to see it.

An ancient rabbi in the Midrash, Rabbi Binyamin, had a provocative comment on this line:  he said:
אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקב״ה מאיר את עיניהם מן הכא ויפקח אלהים את עיניה
this verse shows that all people are considered to be blind until God opens their eyes. (Genesis Rabbah 33:14) 

Why was Hagar completely oblivious to the well that was right in front of her, that was the answer to all of her hopes and prayers?  Perhaps for the same reason that 50% of people missed the invisible gorilla.  We are unlikely ever to see that which we don’t expect to see.  Perhaps Hagar was so despondent that she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face, even though it was what she was yearning for more than anything else.

If this were the only example in our torah readings of someone who was oblivious to something hidden in plain sight, we could say that this is only Hagar’s problem, not our problem.  But actually, there’s a similar example in our torah reading from today.

This morning, we read the provocative story of the binding of Isaac.  The story reaches a climax as Abraham is holding a knife over Isaac, ready to slaughter his son, when at the last possible moment, an angel of God calls out to Abraham and says “Avraham! Avraham!  (and Abraham says “here I am”)   God says:  Don’t extend your hand to the boy, and don’t do anything to him.  Now I know that you are someone who fears God, and you would not withhold your only son from me.”  And then we read וישא אברהם את עיניו - Abraham lifts up his eyes, וירא והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו - and he saw - here was a ram, caught in the thicket by its thorns.

Rabbi Avi Weiss notes absurd about this episode.  Rams are not small animals.  The idea that there could be a ram caught in the bushes in close proximity to Abraham  - and that Abraham would not have noticed until he lifted his eyes - this is bizarre and improbable.  

Unless you consider that, at that moment, Abraham was totally focused on fulfilling what he regarded as an absolute divine command.  It was as if everything else in Abraham’s life did not exist.  On the one hand, this kind of total focus can be beautiful - like the focus of an artist or an athlete who is so devoted to an activity that he or she is oblivious to everything else in the world.  But in the case of Abraham, this single-minded focus on a task strikes us as diabolical.  Perhaps Abraham knew that the only way he could possibly carry through with this act would be to be willfully blind to everything else in his world.

Who knows:  maybe the ram, being caught in the thicket, maybe THAT was the first sign that was given to Abraham, to tell him not to slaughter his son but to slaughter the ram instead.  But even though that sign was the answer to all of Abraham’s prayers - sparing his son’s life - he was so oblivious to it that God had to proceed with Plan B.  And Plan B was to get an angel to call out to Abraham to get him to stop,  and even THAT had to happen twice, and then FINALLY Abraham notices the ram that he should have seen all along.

Both Hagar and Abraham, for different reasons, are blind to their environment.  After Hagar endures one defeat after another, perhaps she assumes that she will never succeed --  she stops being able to even recognize what success looks like when it encounters her.  And Abraham’s blindness may have come from his determination to fulfill exactly what God wished for him, and to silence any misgivings.  But in both cases, both Abraham and Hagar miss the things that are right in front of their noses that could bring them blessing.

The Kabbalistic tradition - the tradition of Jewish mysticism - helps us to consider this phenomenon of people being oblivious to the things that they need that are right in front of them.   Kabbalistic masters like Rabbi Isaac Luria,  and the Baal Shem Tov, used the expression מוחין דקטנות mochin de-katnut’ -- which is an Aramaic phrase that means ‘small consciousness,’ or ‘constricted consciousness.’  We fall victim to ‘mochin de-katnut’ when we view the world through the narrow perspective of our own ego -  without the perspective that would come from taking a broader view.

Actually, if you have spent some time in Israel, you might have encountered the Hebrew slang term ראש קטן rosh katan,’ which literally means ‘small head,’ and basically conveys a very similar meaning to ‘mochin de-katnut.’ In Israel, someone who is a ‘rosh katan’  is typically a government bureaucrat who slavishly follows rules with absolutely no sense that they’re supposed to be part of a bigger picture or a higher goal.  A rosh katan is someone who is very comfortable mastering his or her own minor fiefdom and has absolutely no interest in anything outside of it, Saying, “I don’t know. I just work here.”  It’s someone who misses the forest - not for the trees exactly, but for just one tree.

But fortunately, the Kabbalists noted, there is a solution.  That solution is to step back and adopt a broader view, a broader perspective, what they referred to as mochin de-gadlut, or ‘a larger consciousness’ or ‘expanded consciousness.’  Only when we attain mochin de-gadlut can we truly experience the world the way it actually is, rather than from our skewed personal perspective.

For me, a powerful visual image to describe this contrast is those pictures of the earth that are taken from space.  When we are down on earth, our issues and problems seem like the very most pivotal matters of our lives, bringing us stress and anxiety, and anger and sadness.  But just go up several thousand feet -- and those problems and crises look mighty small and petty.  And if you keep on going up, further and further, until the earth looks like a peaceful blue ball, and you couldn’t possibly take a side in any conflict anymore because of how minor ANY conflict seems in the vast expanse of space, then you have arrived at mochin de-gadlut.  That’s expanded consciousness.  But we seldom truly get there.  That’s the “God’s-eye’ picture of the world.  We live down here on earth – so necessarily we spend most of our time with our ‘mochin de-katnut’ -- but it plays tricks on us.  We see illusions, we see only what we are primed to see, and we miss the most obvious things right in front of our eyes that could strengthen us, and make our lives ever more full of blessing.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro has a provocative interpretation of the name of this holiday - Rosh HaShanah. Of course, Rosh means ‘head’ , and ‘shanah’ means ‘year’ - so Rosh HaShanah means ‘head of the year” or “beginning of the year.”  But “shanah’ also can mean “changed.”  So “Rosh HaShanah” can also mean, if you are a little creative with the Hebrew grammar (as the Hasidic tradition has been for hundreds of years!), “a head that got changed.”

And that’s our task as we approach a new year - to change up our heads, to move them from katnut to gadlut -  to move them from a narrow focus on our own needs, through the lens of our own egos, and ignoring everything else, to move them to a broader focus on our lives and the lives of others and our world.

And it really works.  Think about the invisible gorilla again.  The only reason why ANYONE didn’t see the gorilla was because they were so involved in the task they were assigned - they were paying attention to just one small facet of the video rather than to its entirety. Had they simply been watching the video and given NO instructions, of course they would have seen the gorilla.  There is so much we miss about our lives and about our world simply because we have zoomed in too close on one facet, or one perspective.

Yesterday I told you a little about my trip to Ghana this summer and the experience of learning about global poverty from a Jewish perspective.  (see http://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/2011/10/sermon-for-1st-day-of-rosh-hashanah.html)   But today I want to tell you about another part of my trip.  While we were in Ghana, we took one day off from the “Challenging Heights” school where we were working, and we traveled about 2 hours away to one of the most infamous sites in all of Africa - the Slave Castle at Cape Coast.   It is one of the largest of the slave castles where, over the course of hundreds of years,
millions of Africans from all over West Africa were brought in shackles and sent out to the Americas to be slaves. We saw the dungeons where people were stored as merchandise, and what was labelled the “door of no return” that led directly into the hold of the ship.  Not surprisingly, the experience reminded me of the experience of visiting Nazi concentration camps – the only other sites of atrocities that I have ever visited.

Especially jarring for us was to see the upper floors of the castle - the living quarters of the captains and the merchants who operated this human warehouse and who managed to carry on with life as normal.  There were school rooms where their children were educated. There were beautifully tiled and decorated bedrooms.  Most shocking of all, was the church, built into the complex.  Right outside the church was a peephole that descends several stories straight down, so that when the captains were at prayer, they could still keep an eye on the slaves down below.
We tried to imagine how someone could be so oblivious to the contradictions between what they were doing in the church, and ostensibly learning in church and the view of the misery of human cargo right outside the church. That’s a horrific example of mochin de-katnut.

One of the captains of one of those slave ships was a man named John Newton - who must have spent some time sleeping and eating in those beautiful rooms and maybe some time worshipping in that church.  Maybe even peered down that peephole.  But many years later, after a religious conversion experience, he came to terms with what he had done those years earlier, and he was the composer of the well-known Christian hymn “Amazing Grace.”  This is part of what he meant when he wrote the famous words “was blind, but now I see.”  What courage it takes to move from a narrow perspective to a wide perspective, to admit that one was previously blind to something that now seems  so evident. It’s what we refer to as the process of teshuvah- repentance and reversal and renewal.  But - as my teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker has written - if a Jew had written the hymn, we would have written it differently.  In our tradition, what opens our eyes is not “Grace”.  Rather, it is our own evolving sense of responsibility that opens our eyes.

One of my favorite things about the “invisible gorilla’ experiment that I mentioned
is how incredulous people would get when they were told that there was a gorilla in the video and that they had missed it.  How could that possibly be!?  But then, when they would watch the video again, the feeling that would come over them is humility. They would understand that they possess less than perfect information about the world, a willingness to concede that their brains and eyes were playing tricks on them, and a greater willingness to accept the perspectives of others. And similarly, taking a broader view of the world, adopting the perspective of gadlut,
is absolutely necessary if one wants to resolve a conflict.  Conflicts remain intractable as long as both parties remain with a ‘rosh katan,’ as long as they both look at the conflict from their own narrow perspectives.

This year I have been especially frustrated by narrowness I have seen in the political world.  I’ve been frustrated to see elected officials engaging in political brinksmanship not truly out a desire to pursue wise policies for their constituents but out of a desire to score cheap political points.

And The State of Israel is so precious to me that it bothers me intensely to see so many people who approach it from the narrow perspective of mochin de-katnut. I am frustrated that so many supporters of the Palestinian cause have absolutely no room in their consciousness for any of Israel’s concerns, and seemingly have no regard for its people.  And I am similarly troubled by some supporters of Israel who refuse ever to acknowledge any Israeli mis-step, or that there is any way that Israel has contributed to the current stalemate.

Just last week, our community welcomed a guest speaker, Ishmael Khaldi of Israel’s Foreign Service - a man with a very unique perspective because he’s a Bedouin Muslim.  Though he is not Jewish, he is grateful to be living in Israel.  And though he has his share of critiques of Israel, he is proud to embrace Israel as his country and to represent it in the halls of diplomacy.  When he described his hopes for Israelis and Palestinians in light of last week’s events at the UN, it seemed to me that he reflected the perspective of mochin de-gadlut -  of an expanded consciousness, that knows that the real truth of a situation often transcends one’s own perspective, and that real truth can even embody contradiction.  He told us that of course he agrees that there should be a Palestinian state -  that that is both the path of justice as well as the best way for Israel to ensure its short-term and long-term security.  And he said, now is the time for Israelis and Palestinians to ‘break their heads together,’ to make all the hard choices that they have to make, to arrive at an agreement.  And:  if the Palestinians’ effort to gain elevated status at the United Nations is part of their process of making those hard choices, then it will bring peace sooner. But - if the Palestinians’ United Nations gambit is an effort to AVOID making those hard choices, and to evade responsibility, then it will delay peace.... and possibly even delay it to the next generation or beyond.

But as frustrating as it has been to see so many examples of the narrow perspective, mochin de-katnut, in the political arena, I have had the great blessing of seeing some beautiful and loving examples this year of mochin de-gadlut - of people resolving their differences by taking a broader perspective.

Just two examples that come to mind.  I think, for example, of a divorced couple I met this year.  Despite more than a decade since their divorce, there is true and enduring enmity between the ex-husband and ex-wife.But they decided that they would both walk down the aisle together at their son’s wedding – surprising many -- because they wanted to demonstrate that their love for him and his new bride trumped their history of conflict.

Or I think of a few heartwarming examples this year in our community of extended families that include people with a wide variety of relationships with Judaism, where Judaism has often been a source of conflict in the family, but at times of family life cycle celebration, the members of the family wisely decided to put their family relationships first.  This sometimes involved Orthodox and even hareidi family members stretching themselves to participate in non-Orthodox religious ceremonies that weren’t exactly their cup of tea, and sometimes vice versa.  The power to adopt a broader perspective is in our hands at all times.

Let me conclude with one more story, that comes from one of the most extraordinary books I read this year, by my colleague Rabbi Naomi Levy.  It’s called “Hope will Find You.”  http://www.amazon.com/Hope-Will-Find-You-Waiting/dp/0385531702  She writes:
“One day my daughter, Noa, who has physical disabilities, asked me if she could have a rock climbing party for her twelfth birthday. I froze. I’d always been so careful to protect Noa from disappointment. I’d gone to great lengths to create parties where she wouldn’t get left out or feel that her friends surpassed her. I said, “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”….
But day after day Noa kept pushing for the rock climbing party. Eventually I gave in. But I was still worried.                                                                                                                                                    
On the day of the party Noa put on a climber’s harness, and to my amazement, she pushed with her legs and pulled with her arms and boldly made her way up the wall. It wasn’t easy, but she climbed and climbed. She was fearless, beaming with joy.”

Rabbi Levy would say that until that day, she had seen every rock and every bump in her life and her daughter’s life as a frustrating and painful barrier, impeding the progress of life the way it was supposed to be.  But on that day, she realized that her daughter had never experienced life that way – she had never had any preconceived notions of what life was “supposed to be.”

She writes of the lesson that she finally learned from her daughter, that now seemed so obvious though she was unable to see it before:  “In climbing, it is the smoothest surface that is the most treacherous. A rough rocky landscape is fertile ground for ascension. If you want to rise up, don’t fear the bumps.  Turn every stone into a step.”

From Hagar and Abraham, to Rabbi Levy:  The difference between despondence and blessing is rarely a difference of life circumstances and more often it’s a difference of awareness and perspective.

This Rosh HaShanah, may you have the blessing to change your head, to widen your perspective.

May you have the courage to see the unexpected and to find blessings right in front of your face.

(many thanks to Rabbi Gil Steinlauf for making the link between the Chabris/Simons experiment and Hagar, and to Rabbi Sue Fendrick for the link to mochin de-katnut/gadlut.)


Popular posts from this blog

Two words for "husband": Haftarah Bamidbar

What happened to Haman's descendants?

Seder Trivia Game, 2023 edition