Practicing the Art of Paying Attention

It is by paying attention that Moses comes to experience God – the God of his ancestors who calls on him to go to Pharoah to free the Israelites. The entire story hinges on Moses’ ability to pay attention. Our experience of God and response to God hinges on our ability to pay attention and to see that which is truly important.

In the book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, Barry Prizant describes Paul, an aide to an autistic student named Denise. Denise was a 16-year-old with autism who had recently transferred to a new school. At her previous school, she felt so frustrated that she often attempted to hit teachers and had been identified as aggressive.

Paul seemed to know just what to do to help Denise succeed. He made sure Denise had the materials she needed for her upcoming assignments and helped her get organized, but then he would back off and give her space.

He kept a close eye on her from across the room, and whenever she became agitated or distracted, Paul would draw closer to her and she would calm down and relax. He had the extraordinary ability to observe the most subtle sign that Denise was becoming disregulated and knew the right thing to say or do to calm her down. Sometimes he did it from a few feet away, in a barely noticeable way – a reassuring head nod, pointing, or saying a few words. It was as is they had a magical, silent, symbiotic connection where Paul could help her stay calm and relaxed.

When Paul was asked how he knew what to do, his answer was simple: “I just pay attention.” Paul didn’t have a graduate degree, therapeutic training or teaching credential – he simply possessed the ability to watch, to listen and to be sensitive to Denise’s needs.

We need more Pauls in the world – because the ability to pay attention changes everything. The example I gave was a child with special needs – but this lesson on the power of paying attention applies to every relationship and every moment. This is about parents and children; people in our community and work; friendships – every relationship!

Think about the scene I described of Denise and Paul – there is a lot more that is going on:

  • Paul had deep empathy. He tried to understand how she experiences the world – reading her cues and making sense of her world.
  • He sought to understand what drove her behavior, watching the shifts of the signs she displayed.
  • He didn’t exert control by responding aggressively – he gave her a cue so that she could regulate herself.
  • He respected her, and that allowed trust to develop.

In this morning’s portion, we meet Moses and are introduced to a man who pays attention – not only to other people and their situations, but to everything that is going on around him. It is that ability to pay close attention and then act that may be Moses’ greatest lesson to us – it connects him to others, allows relationship with God to develop and deepen and motivates activism.

Moses’ realization that his destiny was to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt stemmed from the ability to pay attention. He is quietly tending to his sheep, when something happens that catches his eye: a bush catches on fire. Now, bushes catch fire all of the time in the desert. Take a look at the verse, Exodus 3:2 An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed – va’yar and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. How long must he have had to look before realizing that it is not consumed by the flames? A long time. What distinguishes Moses is that he pays attention.

Then we see the word again – vayar – God saw that he had turned aside to look. Moses’ paying attention allows God to see him. God calls our “Moses Moses” and Moses responds, “Hineni – Here I am.” It is by paying attention that Moses comes to experience God – the God of his ancestors who calls on him to go to Pharoah to free the Israelites. The entire story hinges on Moses’ ability to pay attention. Our experience of God and response to God hinges on our ability to pay attention and to see that which is truly important. 

          The ability to pay attention is what distinguished Moses from the first accounts of him in the story. Go back a chapter to the first time we encounter Moses as an adult. In chapter 2 the word that repeats over and over is the word see – resh’aleph’heh. In verse 2 va’yar b’sivlotam – he sees their suffering. A mensch is someone who sees that sufferrings of another. Then vayar ish mitzri makeh ish ivri me’achav – He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. And he acts to stop the beating – striking down the Egyptian. Moses acts whenever he sees injustice.  His first act in Midian is to protect the women at the well from the marauders he encounter who try to drive the women off. Moses teaches that it is not enough to see. Moral grandeur comes as we respond to what we see.

Think about your ability to see and how you might nurture that aspect of yourself. Can we see the needs of the person with whom we interact?  Can we see the miracles and Divine that surrounds? Can we respond to the injustices that pervade our world and make a difference in the lives of those who suffer? Moses teaches us that moral grandeur begins with the ability to see and to respond.

And it is stories of people who live those truths who inspire us. I want to tell you about a pitcher for the Oakland A’s named Sean Doolittle. Any of you who are baseball fans know that Sean Doolittle is a very good relief pitcher with a big, red beard. Sean and his girlfriend Eireann Dolan see needs in the community and act. When Scott Lunger, a local police officer was killed in the line of duty in July, they spearheaded a letter-writing campaign offering condolences to his family. On Thanksgiving, they worked with the Chicago mayor’s office to give 21 Syrian families – over 90 people – a taste of their adopted country’s tradition. It wasn’t a political statement, they were simply struck by the parallels between these refugee’s journey and that of Dolan’s grandfather, who left the Troubles in Northern Ireland for Chicago in the 1940’s. Listen to how they explained it: “We just wanted to welcome them with a nice American Thanksgiving.” While unable to share the meal in person Doolittle and Dolan helped arrange and pay for the catering and recorded a minute-long video greeting for their guests, in both English and Arabic. And what did Sean and Eireann do for Christmas last week? They paid for Christmas for two military families through Operation Finally Home. In past years, he has bought truckloads of Christmas gifts for needy military families through the same organization. Moses and Sean Doolittle teach us that we can see those in need and act to help them – and that is the essence of moral grandeur.

If you want a New Year’s Resolution – resolve to train yourself in the art of seeing: paying attention to people around us and acting. Let’s resolve to:

  • See cues and unspoken messages so that we can respond with discernment and kindness.
  • See pain, frustration, joys and achievements and so that we can respond with empathy and acknowledgment.
  • See the pain and suffering in the world in which we live and find small and large ways to make a difference. May this year our vision lead us to moral grandeur.