What Are You Looking At?

On Monday afternoon I stood with a group of talmidim staring up at the sky.

Of course, we in Florida only saw a partial eclipse. Millions of people travelled for hours to experience a few minutes of totality. From my conversations with colleagues and friends who made the trek, none of them thought it was a waste of time.

But even for us, there was something special about the event. One of the guys handed me his eclipse glasses and said “Rebbe, thats the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve never felt so small.”

There is something deeply inspiring in witnessing the cosmic dance of light and darkness. For just a moment we are able to experience the unfathomable magnitude of these celestial bodies. Seeing the moon pass in front of the sun is so enormous that one cannot help feel small.

This smallness, however, is not depressing. It’s not the result of the shrinking of ourselves, but instead, the expanding of our views.

In those minutes of humility and wonder, I distinctly felt how my own concerns and issues seemed petty. Many of my students felt the same, and I came away asking if there might be more ways to reengage with these feelings and perspectives without waiting for the next eclipse.

At the same time as the shadow of the moon was sweeping through North America, there was another event taking place. This event was not widely reported or discussed. But I would suggest that it was just as monumental.

In every location where people gathered to see the eclipse, there was 40% drop in internet usage. To the best of my understanding, this “internet time” was not caught up by peaks of usage before and after. Which means to say, that for a short window on Monday afternoon, large swaths of humanity replaced the urge to look down, with the desire to look up.

We are living in a generation where it is laughably impossible to keep up with everything going on. We simply have access to far too much information. As of two years ago, over 30000 hours of video content were uploaded to YouTube every hour.

By definition, every act of looking at a screen contains a choice of what to consume. Often enough, those choices are made for us by algorithms and advertisers. But there is another option.

At any moment, there are countless events occurring in the world around us. But the stories of my life and of your life are experienced as the narrative of events that we are looking at. The choice of whether to look at the sky and marvel at Hashem’s creations or to consume some digital content is choosing how to write the next page in the story of our own lives.

Our lives are nothing more and nothing less than where we place our attention and focus.

As we approach Pesach, we can understand the entire story of Yetzias Mitzraim as Hashem calling out to Klal Yisrael to stop looking down, and to start looking up.

The plagues of Blood, Frogs and Lice addressed us while our necks were still bend in slavery. These Makos affected the water and ground.

When the wild animals, pestilence and boils arrived, they affected people and animals. Our heads were raised to eye level.

Hail, locusts and darkness all descended from the sky as Hashem invited us to look upwards.

Once we had learned how to look upwards, Makos Bechoros taught us to look even further; beyond the world of nature, beyond the world of human sight.

To choose where to look and focus is to choose how we experience our lives. Conversely, if we want to evaluate the kind of life we are living, we should investigate the things we are looking at.

This principle is derived from a Halacha in our parsha. The Mishna tells us: כָּל הַנְּגָעִים אָדָם רוֹאֶה, חוּץ מִנִּגְעֵי עַצְמוֹ – All negaim/tzara’as may be examined by a person, except his own. But the Baal Shem Tov explained further:

כל הנגעים אדם רואה חוץ מנגעי עצמו, ופירש הבעל שם טוב הקדוש, כל הנגעים שאדם רואה חוץ, זה נמשך מנגעי עצמו, כמאמר רבותינו ז”ל (קדושין ד”ע ע”א) כל הפוסל במומו פוסל:

We learned “a person sees all defects, except (chutz) their own defects.” The holy Ba'al Shem Tov explained that “a person only sees defects outside of themselves (chutz)” – if what they see is a continuation of that person's defects, as our sages say “he disqualifies others with his own flaw.”

If we choose to look at another person’s flaws, this informs us of the problems we have ourselves.

Perhaps this is the reason we begin Pesach with searching for Chametz. Hashem wants us to direct our vision. There is much to discuss regarding the values and ideas in the mitzvah of searching for chametz. It's a world of Teshuva and introspection; but it all begins with acknowledging that we are always choosing where to look.

This is the Avoda for this week, for this season and this generation. We can choose where to look. And since we can choose, Hashem is asking us to raise our sights and perspective, to look upwards, inwards and onwards.