Our theme for this year’s High Holy Day season is “Seeking,” drawn from Psalm 27, our musical anthem that’s a love song with God:
You called to my heart:
“Come seek My face / Come seek My grace.”
For Your love, Source of all, I will seek.
Whether or not we’d use the term, all of us are seekers. As Psalm 42 puts it, “As a deer pants at water brooks, so does my soul thirst for God.” Medieval mystic Avraham Ibn Ezra used these words in a chant,tzama nafshi: “my soul thirsts.”
Rosh Hashanah evokes a thirsty soul. Maybe we thirst for connection, meaning, truth, comfort, health or change. Thirst impels us to seek. Maybe we seek what we lack. Or maybe we best resonate with a more positive approach: “You called to my heart, come seek My face.”
Seeking, striving, thirsting, reaching toward and reaching beyond – active-tense verb metaphors of spiritual life. Rosh Hashanah calls us to our souls, to bring spirituality to new life by our own active effort. In the process, we notice what maybe we set aside during the year. We attune to inner stirrings. We sense how we may yearn to change. We thirst, and we seek.
But what water can quench our thirst, and how do we find it? What is the face of God we seek, and how can we see it?
This year I feel especially aware of what and how we see. This year I had surgeries to restore physical vision that I was losing to eye disease. I wasn’t seeing what was there, and instead I was seeing ghost images that weren’t there.
When literal vision is distorted, a surgeon can help. But when spiritual vision is distorted, we need other healing tools. One of tradition’s tools is images – imagery – to repair vision.
To really understand this, we need to recall that imagery isn’t the language of the eye. Eyes see only light and contrast: eyes send those signals to the brain, which turns those signals into images. Images rule the mind – not words or thoughts, but images. Images rule the mind. Brain scientists confirm not only this scientific truth with MRI scans, but also another: to the mind, words matter only if they evoke images, and images matter only if they lift us into experiencing those images as inner reality.
What scientists confirm with MRI scans, our tradition knew millennia ago: images are the language of the mind and soul. Maybe that’s why Torah and liturgy overflow with images. Jews call ourselves People of the Book; really we’re a People of Images. So when Rosh Hashanah depicts seeking God’s face, a desert journey, thirsting for water, a shepherd counting us under a staff, and a Book of Life, those images speak the language of the soul at this soulful time of year.
So in the language of image that reigns within, on Rosh Hashanah what is inner thirsting? What water will quench our thirst, and how we do find it? What is God’s face that we seek, and how can we see it? For answers, we must delve into Rosh Hashanah’s images and experience them as inner realities.
Today’s Hagar story is imagery about thirsting for God. Hagar, in Hebrew “the one who sojourns,” is cast out from the home she knows – far from perfect – into the desert with her child. Their water runs out. They thirst. She weeps for fear that her son will die. An angel calls to comfort Hagar, telling her to get up and lift up the child. And then the image:
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
וַתֵ֜לֶךְ וַתְמַלֵּ֤א אֶת־הַחֵ֨מֶת֙ מַ֔יִם וַתַ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּעַר:
God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water:
She went, filled her water skins and gave the child to drink.
God opens eyes, shows a well of water, quenches thirst. Tzama nafshi: the soul thirsts.
Images – symbols for spiritual truths beyond words. But we also know that truth is far more than idea: it’s feeling. To Hagar, water was wet, cool and drippy, but maybe to us here it’s a heart sense of cooling relief, a life-giving ahhhhh! That’s how images speak the language of emotion, the language of inner experience.
We bring this same sense to the image of God opening Hagar’s eyes. Hagar’s physical eyes already were open: they saw well enough for Hagar to journey into the desert, but she still couldn’t see the well right in front of her face. God opens her eyes to see in a new way. The well already was there, but it took a new look for Hagar to see it. It was exactly that, seeing what was before her eyes, that allowed her thirst to quench.
Thirsty souls yearn to see different. For me and my eyes, it was literal: I needed new eyesight. And every year at this time, my inner vision needs clearing. Some of what I see may not be great: health, wealth, relationships, emotions or faith may seem parched. It may take holy vision to see that another view is possible. It may take Godly vision to see new possibility right before our eyes.
And that’s the image we call God’s face – the face of possibility, the face of change that this time of year calls us to seek. We seek. We yearn. We thirst. Rosh Hashanah calls us into those feelings because feeling evokes the inner language of change. The face of possibility is the face of God we seek.
But what does this face of God look like? Again, images abound – and suitably for Rosh Hashanah, which we call the anniversary of creation, one potent image comes from Creation itself. The Creation story tells that each of us is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God – or, in a brilliant re-telling by Rodger Kamenetz, each of us is made withthe image of God. Creation itself came from the image!
If so, then we know we can change because any change – every possible image of ourselves – comes from the primordial Godly image. When we see the world this way, then perhaps we can see the Godly image shining from our own face and, truly, from every face. If we see with those eyes, then everyone’s face isb’tzelem Elohim, with God’s image. Imagine being able to see that light shining from everyone!
But our ancestors asked, how can every face, in all their diversity, be like God’s face? The rabbis offered yet another image: if a king stamps a coin with the king’s face, each coin is the same, for a king has only one face. But when God ‘stamps’ the human face, each looks uniquely different because God shines with the supernal light of infinite possibility.
Of this image, Art Green teaches this: “To be a Jew is to walk the tightrope between knowing the invisibility of God and seeing the face of God everywhere.” Spiritually speaking, our eyes can open to see God’s face in everyone and everywhere. “Everyone” means all of us, and “everywhere” means the inner changes that Rosh Hashanah calls us to seek in our lives.
So yes, we can indeed make an image of God – but not a graven image, say the Ten Commandments. We make no graven images, not because God has no image, but because, as Art Green’s put it, the only image of God we ever could fashion, in any medium, is our lives. Let our entire lives be the face of God. And let us aspire to live that way starting today.
Images: thirsting and seeking, wells and faces, language of the soul. They remind us to see different, and to be different.
And yet we forget. I forget. Every year. The rigors, pace and disappointments of ordinary life are insidious: they sneak up on us, becoming dark veils over our vision. And beyond those veils, sometimes we don’t see. We don’t see the well of water. We don’t see the face of God. We even lose sight of ourselves.
That’s the cycle of spiritual life – seeing and not seeing. It’s why Rosh Hashanah calls us back each year, because our vision naturally can become distracted and occluded. And because change comes in the language of images felt in the heart, clearing our vision requires us to feel. It take feeling our proverbial thirst, feeling the parched places in our lives, feeling that times that we missed the mark, feeling the times that we felt pain or caused pain.
In short, we must let ourselves see and feel what’s dark in order to see and feel real light – not that darkness is the point, but that any true sight, by its nature, can’t be merely partial. Whole vision is the goal of these Days of Awe – to see darkness for what it is, so that we can bring it to light. That’s the point of our spiritual journey. That’s the point of spiritual life – maybe the point of life itself.
The light awaits us. The well, the water that quenches the soul’s thirst, the face of God – they all wait for us. They are our destination during these Days of Awe. It’s Hagar’s journey to the well, to a new kind of vision. It’s our journey to see the divine image in every face. It’s our journey through our inner images of ourselves and others that call us to purify them.
Our journey will take courage. We’ll need heart. We’ll need to feel, and we’ll need to risk. Most of all, we’ll need each other, each of us b’tzelem Elohim, made with God’s image.
On this Rosh Hashanah, may each of us commit to seeking the image of God’s face in each other and the world. May our yearning open our eyes to a new vision for this new year. May the life-giving water of spirit strengthen us for the journey ahead. And in this merit, may we and all our loved ones see ourselves renewed for a shanah tovah um’tukah, a good and sweet year.