Thursday, May 31, 2012

Myself as Witness

This week I found myself in an unusual role. Most typically I play a lead part in family life. I tend to be outspoken and, leo that I am, leadership comes natural.
Over the last few days I have watched others star while I have been the appreciative audience. First, my eighteen year old daughter, Bess, travelled to the United States on her own for Shavuot for something purely personal. She set her own agenda and made it work. I watched and listened as Bess became adult before my eyes. She engaged everyone from airport security to strangers who hosted her for Yom Tov meals as a peer, exhibiting personal power and competence. All I could say was "Bravo!"

And then the other woman in my life, my wife Lindy, made her debut on stage appearing in the Encore production of "My Fair Lady" here in Jerusalem. I, together with her family were part of the large audience who heard and saw her sing and dance in the ensemble. For Lindy it was a dream come true. From her youth she had wanted to perform. She had the talent but not the opportunity. And now finally she had her chance. While not the star of the show by any means, she was our star. And most importantly she did something purely for herself, the fulfillment of a life's ambition. Here too, I was not the lead, nor even the support. The role I played was witness.

Is witness to another's milestone an important work? I mean, all it takes is showing up. The answer is, you bet!

Have you ever thrown a party and no one came? or even if people came, have you known the fear that maybe no one would? Most of us have lived at different times with the fear that our lives are irrelevant to others, that what happens to us doesn't really matter to anyone else. I will admit to you that sometimes I have fretted over whether anyone would come to my funeral. Friends have admitted in confidence that it hurts them when people they expected did not show up to the wedding or bar mitzvah they made. The invitee thought their attendance would make little difference. They thought what does it matter one person or two more or less. But my friends who hosted the event felt slighted that their simcha was not worth the effort for this person to attend. True the invitee was only to be a witness to the occasion of another. But being witness makes the event real in the eyes of the particpants. It adds immeasurabley to the event's significance.

The Torah teaches us this value this week. In the parsha of Naso, we find the "birkhat kohanim", the Priestly Blessings. In the third blessing the kohaneem say "May Hashem lift His face unto you and bless you with peace." What does it mean for G-d to "lift his face"? The Ibn Ezra understands the idea of G-d lifting His face, "This is the opposite of G-d avoiding seeing you (one of the curses for disobedience). Here G-d will be with you wherever you go."

There is no greater blessing than to know one is noticed and in every passage of one's life. So much of what causes suffering is the sense that my troubles go unnoticed, no one cares. A simcha is made whole by the presence of others who validate it's meaning. When the priests bless us that Hashem always be with us they are not asking that He help us or alter our fate for the better. They are simply praying that G-d be witness to the events of our lives and in every detail.
We are being blessed that we experience our lives being lived before the ultimate witness, G-d Himself. In and of itself that does not change our circumstances and yet being witnessed and by our G-d makes all the difference to the quality of our experience.

We are called to emulate the ways of G-d. We too need to take to heart the importance of being witness. We need to be mindful when we have opportunity to attend the simcha or sadness of another and to realize we are not just guests. We have a role to play. True, it's not our show. And we won't even get billing on the program. But the audience too is part of that which makes a performance real.
Without us the show of life would never be the same for those in the central roles.

The good news is that to witness does not take a lot of work. We don't have to do much more than show up. The bad news is that for the very same reason, there is little excuse we can make for failing to show up for another's life milestones.

Being witness is a holy work. To you who take it on I say, "Bravo!".

Shabbat Shalom

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