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March 22, 2024

Seeing the World Through Multiple Lenses

Angela W. Buchdahl

Seeing through Multiple Lenses
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

We have now entered the 3rd book of the Torah, Leviticus, or Vayikra in Hebrew.

It begins rather prosaically with:

“God called to Moses and spoke to him.” 

But these simple words at the start of the book inspired 15 very long paragraphs of sermonizing in a 5th Century Midrash called Vayikra Rabbah.  Midrash is the way that rabbis add color, fill in gaps or explain inconsistencies in the text. Sometimes a midrash can completely reverse the literal meaning of a passage through creative interpretation.  With Vayikra Rabbah, the rabbis continued the process of revelation– and made the fixed text of Leviticus, into a living text.  

So what got the rabbis so excited about this little opening of the chapter:  

“God called Moses and spoke to him”?

They want their midrash to illustrate Why did God choose Moses?!  

Chapter 1:15 of Vayikra Rabbah offers some explanation: 

What is the difference between Moses and all the [other] prophets? … Rabbi Yehuda says: The prophets would see through nine aspaklaria, looking glasses. … Moses, however, saw through one aspaklaria, as it is stated in Numbers: “And I spoke to him mouth to mouth in a vision and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:8).

In other words: Why Moses? It was because of the way he perceived things.  All the other prophets could only understand God’s truth through “9 aspaklaria”-- 9 prisms, multifocals, filters –whereas Moses only needed one.  

Moses had clarity of vision.  

But I think there is another way of understanding this midrash which flips the rabbis’ intention on its head and I base it on that Hebrew and Aramaic word: aspaklaria – a loan word from the Greek speklon, meaning glass or mirror – the root word of ‘spectacles’ as well. 

Now as a spectacles wearer, I can appreciate what it means to need some aspaklaria in order to have vision. For the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know that most other people could see the individual leaves on trees or that you didn’t have to squint to read a blackboard. When I was finally taken to an optometrist, he put my face behind this big machine called a phoropter with all these gears and hundreds of lenses– an Aspaklaria jackpot.  

And then the optometrist used a method called ‘subjective refraction,’ where I sat with my face pressed against the machine, looking at a distant reader board while he alternated between a series of lenses asking:  

Which is better? One or Two?  

Now in the beginning of this process, it was really obvious which lenses gave me better vision.  But as we got closer and closer to my ‘true vision’ it became clear why this process is called “subjective refraction.”  It became very hard, maybe impossible to decide which lens was better.  They were different. One made the letters cleaner but then they looked farther away.  Or one made the letters sharper but it also made my head hurt. 

Was there really one lens that could capture the way I should see the world?  

While the rabbis of the midrash suggested that Moses was superior to all the other prophets because he only needed one aspaklaria to understand God’s truth – perhaps we should all hope to be more like the rest of the prophets, who must look through a number of prisms in order to gain understanding. 

Like our tradition’s most famous apostate, Baruch Spinoza.  He saw the world through such different lenses that he was excommunicated from the Jewish community in 1656 at the age of only 23.  And what were these heretical views?   He believed that God wasn’t just up there transcendent, but imminent, in the natural world. He believed God was not at all like a human being who speaks like people do, which meant that revelation had to be understood metaphorically, not literally. He felt the best way to know God was through the human capacity to reason and observe the natural world itself. 

Now all this sounds like the God I believe in! And today, we might view Spinoza as way ahead of his times–a prophet.  Spinoza, once forced out of the Jewish community, supported himself – you can’t make this up— by grinding lenses! He made aspaklaria! He became quite obsessed with microscopes and telescopes as well, opening up the world of the smallest specks and the furthermost stars.  

How fitting–that this dangerous heretic, the lens grinder, enabled so many to understand God through different prisms.  

I think of today, how we want a simple truth.  We want to look through one lens and understand the most complicated matters of our time.  But only Moses can do that.  For the rest of us, we must constantly correct one corruption of our optics and our vision with other aspaklaria.  This is the beauty of the process of discerning truth.  

I know it is hard to be challenged to see through another lens–to be asked, ‘Which is better?  One or Two?’ because the closer you get to the real thing, the harder it is to decide.  You might even have to settle for the understanding that neither is better or worse.  But that different aspaklaria might just provide you with a different perspective on the same sight.  This can unsettle us, flip our understanding of things.  But maybe this is exactly the point.

We are in the season of Purim, it begins Saturday night.  And a theme of this holiday of subversion and reversion is the call to turn everything upside down–v’nahafoch hu. We can flip everything on its head, or we could look at it through another prism.  The point is to make us see anew. 

So just as we reverse our destiny on Purim, and win the lottery.

Today, we view Spinoza, our tradition’s heretic, as one of our great prophets.  

And we upend the Vayikra Rabbah midrash which set out to prove that Moses was better than the rest –and suggest that, actually, maybe we should aspire to be more like the other prophets, who saw things through many aspaklaria.  

V’nahafoch hu.  Let’s turn all of this on its head.  

And while we’re at it– in these dark times–let’s be happy.  

After all, it’s Adar. 

go ahead and say
death is a thief,
but also say – the fact of it
can be the soil
from which life grows.
Meaning, the fact
that the song will end
can be the thing
that makes us
turn up the stereo.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.