Learning to See
3 November 2017
14 Cheshvan 5778
As I walked around the school this week, I noticed incredible student artwork on the walls of our second floor gallery space and outside our art studios. Projects from our photography and visual arts foundations involve multiple media, including photography, drawing, writing, and digital design. Some of the pieces are self-portraits, which train our students to look carefully at themselves and represent what they see. Some of the assignments asked students to draw or photograph objects, paying close attention to fine detail, darkness, and light.
I was particularly drawn (no pun intended!) to one of the projects in which students learned to draw eyes. Observing how accurate and realistic the drawings are, I found myself staring at two eyes that were looking back at me. The symbolism of drawing eyes reminded me that these projects, and visual arts education, in general, are so important because they teach students how to see in powerful new ways.
Visual arts teach students to look carefully and deeply at an object that they’ve “seen” thousands of times, to pay attention to how light reflects off or illuminates ordinary things, to notice lines, curves, and shapes, as well as context and surroundings. Learning to represent or create images begins with learning how to see.
This is one of the reasons why arts education is essential for students’ human development and for preparing them to effectively navigate the world. Seeing is a powerful academic tool, the heart of critical thinking and analysis in every discipline. Think of literary analysis or a science lab, both of which often start with the question: “What do you notice about this (fill in the blank)?”
And seeing is not only a cognitive tool. It is also a moral and spiritual capacity. The ability and willingness to see the suffering of another or the brokenness of our world are precursors to empathy and compassion, social activism, and tikkun olam (working to heal and repair our world). The capacities to pay attention and to see people and the world through new eyes free our minds to think differently and creatively and open our hearts to experience what Abraham Joshua Heschel would call wonder and radical amazement.
As I reflect on the intellectual, moral, and spiritual significance of seeing and learning to see, I wonder whether that is why this week’s Torah portion, which contains some of the most dramatic and paradigmatic moral and spiritual moments in the entire Torah, repeats the verb “to see” (the root in Hebrew is ra’ah - ר.א.ה) so frequently and in so many forms.
For example, the name of the parsha is “Vayera”—for God “appears” or becomes seen to Abraham, just before Abraham sees three men, or angels, coming toward his tent. Sarah sees Hagar, her maidservant (who had given birth to Abraham’s first son because Sarah could not at the time become pregnant) laughing or playing, and immediately she tells Abraham to expel both Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar does not want to see her son die of thirst in the desert, and then God opens her eyes and she sees a well of water. While Abraham and Isaac are walking together on the way to the place where Abraham will sacrifice Isaac, Isaac (presumably naïve about what is happening) asks, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”, and Abraham responds that God will see to the lamb for the offering. After God stops Abraham from killing his son, Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a ram. He names the place where the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) almost took place. “God will see” because it was on that mountain that God “was seen.”
When a word in all its forms appears this many times, the Torah seems to be calling out to us to notice it. In this case, just as in the eye project in our gallery, the medium is the message. We see in this week’s parsha and throughout the Torah that learning to see, in all different ways, is not only the hallmark of a great high school education but also a hallmark of being human, an amazing spiritual opportunity and a profound moral responsibility.
Rabbi Marc Baker
Head of School