By Rabbi David Wolpe
To be watched is to feel the expectation of the watcher. The driver is more careful with a police car behind, the high school athlete more adept with the cheerleader on the sideline, every performance heightened once there is an audience.
To be seen is to behave differently. It is to excite admiration, avoid censure — to be aware of being judged.
Walking inside our homes, we sigh with relief. The prying eyes of the world no longer are on us. We can loosen a tie, take off shoes, “unwind.” We are wound for the world that is always watching.
Watching need not involve a physical observer. The musical “Hamilton” celebrates the genius of the Founding Fathers with a song that reminds us what they knew: “History has its eyes on you.” The judgment of posterity can feel as real as the judgment of one’s neighbor or friend.
As much as we prize individualism, human beings are social creatures. Even as we act alone, we wonder what this person or that would think of our actions. We can feel embarrassed by something we do even when no one is around, for the eyes of others are always present as possibilities.
For the Jewish tradition, watching does not end at death. There is a practice called shemira, literally “guarding,” in which one watches over a deceased body after death until burial. We are watched literally until the grave.
Rosh Hashanah is a time when we are reminded that our actions are observed. It is a season of intensified watching. Jewish communal closeness means that we watch one another. Jews often come to High Holy Days services dressed in nice clothes; the paradox of dressing up your body when you are expected to bare your soul is not lost on them. Even those who are draped in finery make fun of the practice. But it persists because we will be watched: our clothes, our comportment, our words. The community will be there, and every community is a collection of witnesses.
Moreover, the point of the holiday is that G-d watches. Everyone gives account, every deed is known.
There are many reasons why this makes moderns uncomfortable. It anthropomorphizes G-d, as though the Creator were peeping through a celestial telescope to check us out. More disturbingly, it makes of G-d an ever vigilant and presumably harsh dictator watching at every moment.
The high holiday liturgy, however, refers to G-d as a shepherd and Israel as G-d’s sheep. Watching is not malevolent or dictatorial; it is a watching of gentleness, from the One who understands, and the One who is said in our prayers to have Ahavat Olam — eternal love. If we understand being watched as an act of love, as parents watch a child, the significance shifts.
To be watched by One who understands and knows you (Psalm 139: “Dear Lord, you have searched me and know me”) is a blessing. We are no longer alone. Most of our lives, we live inside ourselves, expressing but a small fraction of the drama, the dreams and the pain that make us human.
All day long, we think and experience, imagine and wonder about life, and then when we return home we are asked, “How was your day?” and we answer, “Fine.” Our internal drama is mostly lost. But there is a G-d who understands. On the High Holy Days, we renew our appreciation for the promise of not walking through life misunderstood and alone.
To feel that you are before G-d is to be aware of the consequences of your actions, to be sure. A simple photocopy of eyes taped to a wall makes us act more honestly. But the watching of G-d is not only an encouragement to ethics; it is a comfort. We will act better for the recognition that we do not act in secret. But we also will live more happily for the recognition that we do not live in isolation.
As the new year dawns, and we reflect more on ourselves than our screens, Jewish tradition reassures us: We are seen, and being seen is a gift and a blessing.