Day 33: Right In Front of Our Eyes

Who would have believed I would have missed the gorilla?

I want to share with you this evening one of the most well known psychological experiments and its relevancy to Yom Kippur and our lives.

While at a training program at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, my colleagues and I were asked to watch a video clip of kids passing a basketball and asked to count the number of passes. At the conclusion of the scene, we were asked two questions: How many passes? Did you see the gorilla?

Almost to a tee, we counted the same amount of passes. However, only half of us saw the gorilla in costume waving its arms as it walked through the passing basketballs. When watching the video a second time it was so obvious. How could we miss it?

We learned then that we were participants in an experiment first conducted at Harvard University entitled “Gorillas in our Midst” and later described in the book “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The study documents the pervasive influence of the illusion of attention. We were told to count the basketballs so we did but we missed the gorilla thumping its chest right in front of our eyes.

We think we are seeing the world as it is but we are really missing so much.

We may even believe we know a fact to be true but it’s true reality may elude us.

The consequences can be dangerous.

Most of us believe that as long as our eyes are on the road and our hands are on the wheel, we will see and react appropriately to any contingency. Yet, extensive research has documented the dangers of driving while talking on the phone. We have all seen distracted drivers run a stop sign, obliviously veer into another lane or drive 30 mph in a 45 mph zone.

Looking is not always seeing. Just like hearing is not always listening.

Another example of this phenomenon was when NASA research scientist Richard Haines conducted a pioneering study on pilots rated to fly a Boeing 727. The pilots underwent extensive training. Once they practiced with the simulator, Haines inserted a surprise into the landing trials. As the pilots broke though the cloud and prepared for landing as they had on all previous trials, monitoring their instruments and weather to decide whether or not to abort the landing, they never saw the large jet in front of them on the runway. It was an accident waiting to happen.

They did not expect it to be there so they never saw it.

Sometimes we become so engrossed in one endeavor, we fail to perceive what is truly important.

G-d anticipated this human weakness and proposed a radical idea long before this experiment. The concept is encapsulated in one of the confessions we recite on Yom Kippur. We acknowledge our failure to observe the Yodim – what we know and the lo Yodim – what we do not know.

Why? This statement seems very unfair. After all, if I did not know, why should I be responsible? Maybe nobody taught me certain commandments or I was unaware that I angered someone?

Judaism teaches that we are fully responsible for what we should have known and what we should have seen.

A mysterious ritual on Yom Kippur underscores our responsibility. .

During the liturgy we read about the service in the Temple in Jerusalem. It consisted of the High Priest taking two goats of the same size and height. Both stand at the threshold of the gates of the Temple. One is sent into the wilderness and one is offered to G-d. What do they symbolize? Why are they identical?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that they represent our freedom of choice. We have a choice to decide between G-d and Azazel. G-d endows each of us with this gift but with this power comes responsibility.

We are called upon to be fully aware of our surroundings and engaged at all times. We must always have our “head in the game.”

Judaism recognizes that our moment to moment expectations more than our visual perception, determine what we see and what we do not see.

What do we miss?

What are our blind spots? They are different for different people.

For some of us, it may be G-d. The very first principle in the Jewish code is acknowledgement of G-d’s presence. G-d stands before me always. Do we fully appreciate and integrate the significance of this idea or is G-d invisible and out of our consciousness?

We miss G-d when we complain when a part of our body hurts but forget to thank G-d for our health every day. A person who recently had hip surgery told me he only noticed his hip when it needed to be replaced.

We miss G-d when we eat without making a blessing or forget to acknowledge G-d after using the bathroom. Intellectually, we would not deny the miracle but we should have remembered to express our appreciation.

We miss G-d when we fail to observe Shabbat. We are afraid to let go of our weekday activities when we should know that in reality the entire week we are only successful due to G-d.

We miss G-d in prayer when we are talking during davening, stand with our backs to the ark or try to multitask by looking at our PDA in the middle of a weekday service. Someone suggested to me this week that the changes in the service during the Ten Days of Repentance are precisely to keep us engaged in the prayers. We have to pay attention.

G-d is in the room. He is here. We need to internalize this fact. Do we give him the illusion of our attention or is it real?

We have other blind spots. We may miss truly seeing or family and friends even when they are right in front of our eyes.

How do relationships break down? The number one key ingredient to a lasting bond between spouses, parents and children is time together. We can be in the same room or same house but are we truly with each other? There may be little communication and connection.

Technology intrudes on our lives in a way like never before. Work comes home and the dividing lines of personal and business time are blurred. We may be more engaged with someone online than the person sitting across the table.

We may be under the illusion we are paying attention to our children or a friend, but are we truly present and in the moment? If our heads are not in the game, we have responsibility. If we are blind to a friend in need and we should have known and acted, we have responsibility. We are accountable for the Yodim – what we know and lo Yodim – what we should have known.

Each human being is created in the image of G-d. Too often our judgments are based on appearances and economics. Every person is holy. We fail to see G-d in people when we do not stand for a senior citizen as mandated within Judaism. We fail to see G-d in man when we criticize the person and not the act. We fail to see G-d when we cannot find a way to recognize our common humanity and not find ways in a community to work together. We look at institutions and forget the individuals. We see names but not faces.

But it runs deeper…The Invisible Gorilla may not be G-d or may not only be a loved one but it may be us…We may be blind to our own potential to be G-d’s partner in revealing G-d in the world. We are responsible to help G-d increase His visibility.

A Sage once wrote that whenever we reach out to someone who is suffering, G-d speaks words of gratitude to us. G-d says, “Thank You for saving my life”. What does this mean? Is not G-d immortal?

I will explain…

When a poor mother lives on the streets with her children, she cries every day, “Help me, G-d. Save me. Lift me and my children out of hunger and homelessness” When nobody comes and people walk by without even a glance, she lowers her head to the ground and laments; “There is no G-d. G-d is dead.”

But, when someone draws near and provides solace and support, she turns her face to the heavens and whispers, “Thank you, G-d.”

Whenever we rise above our indifference and see through the blind spot, whenever we choose to refuse to ignore cries of suffering, whenever we lift off the mask of G-d in the world and help another human being, we become G-d’s partners. A sacred voice echoes across the world speaking softly, “Bless you, thank you, for saving my life.”

Finally, on Yom Kippur we have responsibility for what we should know and should never forget about Israel, our homeland. Following Neilah, we proclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem”. The words are often the last words on our lips as we exit the shul in anticipation of a break fast. To some degree, though, I think we have forgotten the miracle of Israel. Israel remains isolated more than ever and increasingly feels under siege. At a time of crisis, the Jewish community in some instances seems to be missing the gorilla in the room. Yes, Israel has problems. But we are sometimes too lost in the politics of the moment that we miss the larger narrative and appreciation of the gift of Israel.

In a controversial article this past year by Daniel Gordis entitled “Are Young Rabbis Turning on Israel”, Gordis reflects “When the revival of Jewish sovereignty evokes images of war only, when the restoration of a people to their homeland evokes no pride, when the ingathering of exiles after 2,000 years does not strike a chord of awe, our educational system has failed.”

All Jews regardless of their political dispositions should be able to see past the blind spot of petty and personal politics and see something miraculous in the revival of the state of Israel. As Gordis writes, “When we say to students, ‘If you do not want to say Hallel on Israel Independent Day, it is fine with us’ we are failing in our responsibility to teach them to think more deeply and broadly. When we are silent in the face of such myopia, we fail as leaders.”

In the prophets, Samuel’s rebuke of Saul is an admonition to all of us with regard to Israel in particular.”Even if you are small in your own eyes, you are a leader of the tribe of Israel.” Our positions come with great responsibility.

Thousands of years ago, one man saw the invisible when others did not and it changed his life and history. He is our model.

The Torah records that Moshe saw a bush that was burning yet it was not consumed by the fire. G-d testifies that Moshe thought “I will turn aside now and pay attention and look deeply at this great sight and he asked the question – why is not the bush not being burned?”

Our Sages teach that Moshe was not the first to see the miracle. Others had already walked by. However, he was the first to look, pause and wonder about the miracle in front of his eyes. He saw and knew what other people should have seen but missed.

When G-d saw that he turned…when G-d saw that he truly focused on the present…G-d called to Moshe and Moshe replied, “Here I am.”

His choice transformed his destiny and the future of our people.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness. Every moment of our lives and in every situation, we must do everything in our power to uplift that very second for it is a once in- a-lifetime opportunity.

In conclusion, I grant you the following blessing and ask you to share it with those close to you and far away…

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pishishka would give each chasid the New Year greeting that he or she be inscribed for a good year. Then the Rebbe would add, “I can’t imagine the world without you.”

If we cannot imagine the world without G-d …If we cannot imagine the world without each other and if we cannot imagine the world without Israel and we live this dream, then G-d willing, the invisible in our lives will be visible and we will be granted a year sealed and filled with Life.

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