I first noticed my daughter's left eye wandering outwards before her second birthday. Shortly after she turned three, she was diagnosed with a "lazy eye." The problem is that when one eye doesn't follow the other the brain essentially shuts off its use, favoring the good eye and losing the sight in the other. So while her right eye, the "good eye," has 20/20 vision, she has begun to lose sight in the "lazy eye."

In order to restore the vision in her left eye, or at least prevent any further atrophy, we were sent home with a box of patches and instructed to patch the "good eye" for an hour a day, to force the "lazy eye" out of semi-retirement. And so despite her protests and tears, we began patching.

I was thinking that maybe we could all use a bit of this therapy. The Jewish people are now approaching the end of the 33-day period during the counting of the Omer when we recall a plague that killed 24,000 of Rebbe Akiva's students in Talmudic times. We are taught that the plague came upon them because they did not have respect for each other. Our Sages explain that this lack of respect came from an inability to see the spiritual greatness in each individual.

As descendants of Rebbe Akiva's students, we too fall short in this task. To see the greatness in others -- and to act with appropriate respect -- is a skill that must be honed. And like a lazy eye, without use this vision atrophies, leaving our "critical" eye to dominate.

Oxygen Deprived

I recently read an account by a recovering alcoholic. He recalled that after years of living across the street from a gray school building, he awoke one day to discover that the bricks had turned red. Indeed, the bricks had always been red, yet only in sobriety did the world come into color. This had a biological explanation: as the brain is deprived of oxygen, the ability to see in color is diminished.

This got me thinking about how we often become blinded to the beauty before us. We busy ourselves with distractions, work, entertainment, money -- depriving our own brains of what they need to see our world in all its radiant beauty.

The Torah charges us to "Love your fellow as yourself." This directive is two-fold: We must accord respect to our fellow, but we must begin by honoring ourselves. By removing the noise in our lives, this time period forces us to take a closer look at ourselves and begin the work of respectfully working on who we are.

Like the distractions that keep our brains from receiving the oxygen necessary to see the world in color, noise prevents us from listening to the music that is innately within each person. This noise can be our cell phones and Blackberries, as much as it is the voice that tells us we are not good enough, or can only succeed by beating out someone else.

Sights and Sounds

 

When we turn down the volume of our judgments and distractions, we begin to hear the music in the silence.

 

Seeing the greatness in others is not merely an exercise of vision; it requires a keen ear as well. During this 33-day period, as a custom of mourning, we refrain from listening to music. The other day I found myself setting out on a long drive without any CDs in my car. There were only so many cycles of the 24 hour news channel I could endure, and talk radio left much to be desired. I would have to sit in silence. With this opportunity to be alone with my thoughts, I found myself in a sea of worry and judgmentalism. Had I completed my to-do list? What if I don't arrive on time? If only that person hadn't let me down, the project would be a success... This brief encounter with my thoughts was at times uncomfortable. I am used to noise. Sefirah forces us to listen to the sounds of silence.

When we turn down the volume of our judgments and distractions, we begin to hear the music in the silence. From this place we can find respect for ourselves and others.

My daughter still fusses when it's time to put on her eye patch, but she is quickly lost in her Lego and forgets that she's practicing using her "lazy eye." Watching her, my own vision has become stronger. I have become keenly aware of the times I use my dominant eye -- judging and creating divides between myself and another. I have also found the ability to start practicing the use of my own "lazy eye," looking for opportunities of compassion and understanding. These days, the world has become more colorful and the silences more melodic.

Putting it into Practice

Here are a few exercises to sharpen your eyes and ears:

•  Try designating some time with a loved one without any distractions. Shut off your cell phone, don't answer the email, and be only available to that person. Listen. Let them guide how you spend the time. Notice when you want to direct, comment or criticize.

•  Choose a route you usually travel while on the phone or listening to something. Travel in silence. Is there an interesting doorknob on a house you never noticed? You might be surprised by all the details you usually overlook.

•  Find an activity during which you usually multi-task. Eat breakfast over the paper? Check messages while you drink your coffee? Fold laundry while on the phone? Try doing one thing at a time. You might be surprised by what you learn about yourself and your routines.