See Through Your Eyes, Not Only Your Phone

Parashat Re'eh

As Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on August 10, 2018

If you’ve ever been to a concert, children’s program, parade, sporting event, wedding,  graduation, or had a celebrity sighting, you have probably seen people watching the event through the screen of their phones, perhaps you have even been that person. I know I have certainly had my moments of feeling like I had to capture something of the event for my files, to feel like I could look back on that moment in time and feel the sense of joy and the memories of that moment. Yet, sometimes wanting to record or capture that one moment turns into many moments, and suddenly our experiences happen through a screen. You’ve spent time with your grandkids through a screen. You’ve watched your children spend time with their kids through a screen. There’s an iconic photo that you’ll find in your Shabbat handouts that perfectly summarizes this experience and its antithesis. 

[Photo included in Shabbat Handout. Note image icon from blog page] 

You’ll notice the very hip lady in the photo. Her eyes are locked in on what is happening around her. You’ll also notice that everyone else around her is on their cellphones, experiencing the moment through their screens. When I look at this photo, I want to be that hip lady — I’m sure you do too. She’s completely present. I imagine she is saving the memories in her brain to be able to describe them to her friends and family. She might not even have a phone, but I’m certain she wouldn’t have it out even if she did.

Our Torah portion this week, Re’eh, begins with an imperative from Moses: “Re’eh, See! Look! Pay attention!” On this opening word, Sforno, a 16th-century Italian rabbi and commentator takes this one word, and he teaches, “Re’eh, pay good attention, so that you will not be like the nations of the world who relate to everything half-heartedly.” In context, Sforono refers here to the warning the Israelites were given by Moses, to pay attention to the blessings and curses that God outlines for the people so that they can be on the receiving end of blessings rather than curses.

Sforno’s commentary comes as a warning to the Jewish communities of his day: Don’t be like the nations who go about things half-heartedly, hanging in limbo between actions that receive blessing and actions that receive curses. If read with the implications for modern day life, Sforno tells us to pay attention so that we won’t become like the people in the world who relate to everything half-heartedly. We are only partially present when half of our energy has been put into our screens. If we live our life through our screens, we are only living half a life. By the way, if you’re sitting here, thinking to yourself, “oy, rabbi, I don’t have a cell phone or television screen problem,” I want you to think about what other “screens” you might be putting up to people in your life. 

Maimonides, a 12th century commentator, also responds to the beginning words of our Torah portion. He understands the first two words, “re’eh anochi” to actually mean, “Look at me, Look at the man that is Moses!” Maimonides teaches us that every person has the potential to become equal to Moses. When Moses called out for the people to see, he wanted the Israelites to truly see him. Moses was saying, “Everything that I have accomplished you are able to accomplish for yourselves!" When we aspire to serve God by building meaningful relationships, just as Moses served God, we shouldn’t look toward people who have been under-achievers and then compare ourselves to them, patting ourselves on the back for our relative accomplishment. We shouldn’t say, “Oh, well at least I’m not on my phone as much as Ploni over there. I have more self-control than him.” Instead, we should put our sights on those who have achieved more than we have. We should use them as a challenge to set our spiritual sights even higher. “Oh, I love how present that woman in the photo looks compared to everyone else. She’s really in those moments. I want to do more to be able to feel like her. [1] 

Whether the screens of our lives are the literal screens of our phones, or a metaphor for barriers we put up in our relationships, each of us can work on what it means to go out and re’eh, to see, to pay attention to what is happening in front of us. As we get ready for the High Holy Day season—that’s right, it’s only four weeks to Rosh HaShanah— may we each take time to reflect on the aspects of our lives we’d like to improve in the year ahead, the spiritual changes that will allow us to be more present in our lives. Let us think twice before we take out our phones to capture the moments of our lives. We do not need to put our phones away in perpetuity; rather, may each of us find meaningful ways to balance the capturing of memories for our files and the capturing of memories for our souls.


[1] Hilchot Teshuvah chapter 5