Soft and Clear

(Devar Torah for Shabbat Shemot, given at Temple Israel, Duluth, MN on Friday 12/20/13)

I don’t own a television, but, like more and more people these days, I do watch my share of television programs on internet streaming services like Netflix. Probably my favorite t.v. show of recent years has a title that might make you think it’s about Shabbat evening services at Temple Israel.

Indeed, it would probably make a good NY Times crossword puzzle cue:  46 down:  “Welcoming Shabbat at Temple?” (17 letters).

Yup you guessed it:  “Friday Night Lights”

Actually the title refers to the stadium lights in a small city modeled after Odessa, Texas where High School Football is one of the ties that binds the whole community together.  And even though I’m not personally a big football fan, I loved “Friday Night Lights” because football on the show was merely a vehicle for treating themes of family, ethics and community. 

In Temple, when we have our call to prayer, the service leader says:  Barchu et Adonai Hamevorakh (meaning “Bless the Eternal, the One who is Blessed”), to which the congregation responds Baruch Adonai Hamevorakh Le’olam Va’ed (meaning “Blessed is Adonai, the One who is blessed forever and ever).  On “Friday Night Lights,” they have their call to play  -- when, just before they hit the field, Coach Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler) says:  “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts” and the team responds:

“Can’t Lose!”

Let’s do that cheer together:  “CLEAR EYES, FULL HEARTS – CAN’T LOSE!”

I was thinking about that phrase a lot last week when I was attending the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in San Diego.  Especially the “clear eyes” part.

Several of the workshops and services I attended included a time when the leader led us in meditative exercises.  At several of these events the leader would ask us to “close our eyes” or “soften our gaze.”

I think I get it:  Closing our eyes or softening our gaze helps us to relax; helps us calm down; helps us be present; helps us be open.

I went to a wonderful forum at the Biennial that featured Rabbi Sharon Brous, the founder and spiritual leader of a dynamic community in Los Angeles called Ikar.  She said that there are two kinds of Jews in her community:  The first kind are the Jews for whom seeking personal meaning and spiritual comfort is the prime objective.  I tend to think of this as the “soften your gaze” approach. 

And Rabbi Brous said that the other kind of Jews in her community are the folks for whom “The World Is On Fire”, so that for them the prime objective is tikkun olam through social action.  I tend to think of this as the “clear eyes” approach.

Of course, we need both --  and Shabbat itself invites rest, relaxation, a softening of the gaze.  One traditional Shabbat zemer (table song) declares – “Menucha v’Simcha Or Layehudim/ Yom Shabbaton Yom Machamadim” (Rest and Joy, light for the Jews, the day of Shabbat is a day of delights.”).

But we also use this day of rest to focus on Torah. And Psalm 19, part of the traditional Shabbat morning pesukei dizimra liturgy declares: 


ח  תּוֹרַת יְהוָה תְּמִימָה, מְשִׁיבַת נָפֶשׁ;    עֵדוּת יְהוָה נֶאֱמָנָה, מַחְכִּימַת פֶּתִי.

8 The Torah of the Eternal is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Eternal is enduring, making wise the simple.

ט  פִּקּוּדֵי יְהוָה יְשָׁרִים, מְשַׂמְּחֵי-לֵב;    מִצְוַת יְהוָה בָּרָה, מְאִירַת עֵינָיִם.

9 The precepts of the Eternal are upright, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of Adonai is clear, enlightening the eyes.

י  יִרְאַת יְהוָה, טְהוֹרָה--עוֹמֶדֶת לָעַד:    מִשְׁפְּטֵי-יְהוָה אֱמֶת; צָדְקוּ יַחְדָּו.

10 The fear of the Eternal is pure, abiding for ever; the judgments of the Eternal are true, altogether just.

יא  הַנֶּחֱמָדִים--מִזָּהָב, וּמִפַּז רָב;    וּמְתוּקִים מִדְּבַשׁ, וְנֹפֶת צוּפִים.

11 More desirable than even the finest gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.

יב  גַּם-עַבְדְּךָ, נִזְהָר בָּהֶם;    בְּשָׁמְרָם, עֵקֶב רָב.

12 Your servant heeds them; in keeping of them there is great reward.

In other words, with the guidance provided by Torah, and, more generally, with the guidance of our Jewishly informed consciences, we learn: 


This week’s Torah portion transitions us from the family dramas of the Book of Genesis that we finished last Shabbat to the national dramas of the Book of Exodus.  Our clear eyes and full hearts are now on the prize – the prize of freedom and liberation from slavery and oppression.  The two Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, are the first people in the Torah who are described as “God fearing” – as it says in Exodus 1:17 –


יז  וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, וְלֹא עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם; וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ, אֶת-הַיְלָדִים.

17 The midwives feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, but instead saved the newborn male children [whom Pharaoh had commanded them to kill.]

Thus, Torah teaches us that , yirat Hashem – “fear of God” (or if you prefer the alternative translation) “awe of God”  -- is bound up with the idea of civil disobedience, of resistance to oppression.

Or as Rabbi Brous teaches --- Our faith teaches us not to permit our eyes to glaze over when “The World is On Fire” and there is work to do to repair it and to fight injustice.

The URJ Biennial in San Diego filled me with appreciation of both of these aspects of Judaism in general and Reform Judaism in particular:

We gather together on Shabbat to leave the imperfections of the world behind – to internalize and truly feel how miraculous life is – experiencing Shabbat as a foretaste of paradise. 

Let your gaze grow soft.

Let your anxieties and defenses relax.

Let your soul be nourished by this day of joy and peace.    

And we gather together on Shabbat to remind us that the work of battling injustice is part of who we are – that our sacred traditions motivate us to defeat the Pharaohs of the world with clear eyes and full hearts.

Shabbat shalom.




© Rabbi David Steinberg (5774/2013)





Posted on December 22, 2013 .