Noticing, Meaning, and Praising (AKA Follow the Chicken)
Parashat Ki Tavo 5779
Once, while living in New York City, I found myself on a Shabbat afternoon with absolutely nothing to do. It was one of those picture perfect days, where the city called everyone out of their apartments. Since I had no where to be, nothing to do, and no one to meet up with, I went for a walk. I left my apartment at 75th and Amsterdam and headed toward Central Park. While walking down 75th, I noticed something strange directly in front of me. There, about 20 paces ahead was a small chicken. A white feathered, yellow beaked chicken. It was no larger than your average roaster.
Considering the strangeness of this encounter, along with the fact that I had no where I was expected to be, and that the chicken had not noticed me, I decided to follow it. Where on earth was this chicken going? We continued on our journey. The chicken walked down 75th Street toward Central Park West. It turned uptown, past several doormen and a few others who were too focused and busy to take notice of this strange sight. The chicken walked past the Natural History Museum, dodging around the tourists, and abruptly stopping at the corner of 79th and Central Park West. The chicken looked to its left, and it looked to its right. It assessed the traffic situation, and then when the light turned, the chicken crossed the road.
Why? … Well that’s not the point of this story. But, still, the chicken got to the other side of the road, as did I too before the light changed. Finally, when we got to 84th Street, my white feathered and yellow beaked friend turned left. It headed down half of the block, stopping and turning toward a stoop that went up to the door of a lovely townhome. The chicken looked up at the steps, and proceeded to hop up the steps, and onto the handrail where it could reach the buzzer. Using its little yellow beak, the chicken rang the buzzer. No one came to the door.
The chicken rang the buzzer again, looking around to see if anyone else was paying attention to this scene. Other than me, holding back a safe distance so as to not be recognized, no one noticed the chicken. After a few more beats of waiting, someone came to the door. The woman behind the glass of the front door, upon seeing the chicken, gave a big smile, as if she had just encountered a dear friend. She opened the door just enough for the chicken to enter. Still smiling, she said, “Oh hello! Please come in!” Whereupon the chicken entered the home, the woman shut the door, and I never saw that chicken again.
I love this story for its playfulness, and for its elusive meaning. For me, the story is one of noticing. We are called to stop, and sometimes chase after, the strange and wonderful things that happen around us. Capturing and processing the stray thought can lead to new insight; sitting down with someone for a conversation whom we presume to have little in common, but finding new connections — those can be incredibly rewarding experiences.
The tragic figures in the story are all the people who pass by the chicken, who are in too much of a hurry to notice the strange sight. How many people never notice a rainbow after a storm? How many must have passed in front of the burning bush before one person, name Moses, took note of it. In our work-a-day world in which we rush from thing to thing, I often wonder how much we do not notice. How often do we walk right on past chickens, and burning bushes, and all other forms of signs and wonders, simply because we are eclipsed by all of those other pressures, thoughts, and distractions of our every day?
As the pace of life has increased exponentially, the need to notice has become more and more important. Attention is a scare resources, and we have to place intention before attention for noticing to turn into something more. Here, I return to the chicken, because when we take those unexpected walks, and follow those unexpected paths, they lead us to new and interesting places. New places, which expand our understanding of our world, of our community and our relationships, of ourselves, and of God. We talk about the speed of life today as if it were a new conversation, but this has been a part of our mindset for some time. Yes, the invention of the smart phone has spun the carousel faster and faster, but it began long before that.
As we well know, our tradition has always put being ahead of productivity. Shabbat is an answer to the ceaseless drumbeat of productivity and the focus on task rather than being. Shabbat is what Michael Fishbane calls the willful divestment from the marketplace, which gives space for spiritual noticing, which gives space for new insight and new meaning. Within our Shabbat liturgy we find a voice that calls us to confront those distractions that pull us away from what really matters. Often on Friday nights, we read as part of our service a prayer written by the late Rabbi and liturgist Chaim Stern: “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”
Stern noticed how much we were not noticing. He composed that English prayer for the publication of Gates of Prayer in 1975. This prayer goes beyond the story about the chicken. If the chicken is about noticing, then Stern’s prayer is a plea to see God’s handiwork in the miracles we encounter. Stern offers us a prayerful voice to Heschel’s assertion that “The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it.”
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder: How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it! Blessed is the Eternal One, the Holy God!
What are we to do when we notice that the bush goes unconsumed? We reach out to God, reach out for holiness, and reply with praise: “Blessed is the Eternal One, the Holy God!” It’s our spiritual and religious way of saying “Wow!” in response to an encounter with awe.
That we need reminders to notice, to pay attention, is not surprising. We can get easily distracted. Sometimes the task at hand is meaningful, like the painter who does not realize several hours have passed by while she works; or in a simpler form, like the child completely consumed in play because it’s just so much fun. Yet, we are more often than not slightly distracted, slightly not noticing. And the effect is that we eclipse ourselves from God’s daily miracles. When we wander about for forty years, we are bound to get a little distracted from time to time.
Moses was the one who stopped to really see the burning bush, and there had a moment of personal connection with God. Toward the end of his life, he finds himself leading the Israelites to the banks of the Jordan. And there, in this week’s Parashah encourages them to take note of their own burning bushes: “You have seen all that the Eternal did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels.” As the Israelites left Egypt, they were witness to God’s miracles. As the Israelites wandered, God sent numerous signs and wonders to direct, to protect, and to inspire. The Israelites saw them, but did they see them?
Moses continues, “Yet, the Eternal has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear, until this day.” You Israelites have been walking sightless among miracles, Ad ha-yom ha-zeh, until this day: It’s not unlike the line from a different tradition: “Once I was blind, but now I can see.”
Moses may have encountered the burning bush, but we—clay touched by God—also walk amidst daily marvels. How often do we walk past ? How often do we eclipse ourselves from the signs about us? And then, how often do we slightly notice them but neglect to praise like Jacob: “How filled with awe is this place, and I, I did not know it?”
Noticing is not the goal; it is a means to an end. Insight, meaning, and blessings are what we seek. We walk sightless among miracles. God may have given us the eyes to see, but do we really see? We may have ears to hear, but are we really listening? We may have hearts and minds, but do we really understand? Noticing is the first step. Then, in reaction, we have to slow down enough to consider and find meaning. In response to noticing that sacred encounter, we are called to savor the moment, and then to reply prayerfully in wonder, “Wow.”