Seventy Faces of Torah 8.10.15

Seeing Past, Present, and Future on the Road to Justice

Daniel Klein“See”: This simple command opens this week’s parasha and gives it its name, Re’eh.

“See: I place before you today the blessing and the curse.” This commandment introduces a moving teaching about how God’s commandments are set before us, and will lead to blessings if we fulfill them and curses if we abandon them.

But the opening word is entirely unnecessary; the core message about blessings and curses is clear without the instruction to see. Why is it there?

Last year, I heard a report on NPR about the new Google glasses, investigating whether or not drivers should be allowed to wear them. The glasses allow you to see a computer screen more or less floating in front of your right eye, slightly above your line of vision. A person interviewed as he was driving while wearing them said that “the layer [of text you see] is transparent, so your eye does a good job of seeing through it while also staring at it.”

But the brain doesn’t work that way; we may think we are seeing both, the text and the road in front of us, but we are not. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, put it this way: “You think you’re monitoring the road at the same time, when actually what you’re doing (is) you’re relying on your brain’s prediction that nothing was there before, half a second ago — that nothing is there now,” he says. “But that’s an illusion. It can often lead to disastrous results.”

Astounding. What the wearer sees as the road is actually a past perception of the road, predicted as the future, and presented as the present — and she is entirely unaware this is happening. Our own brains can delude us.

This mental assumption, that the past will be the future, goes far beyond the experience of wearing Google glasses, and is profoundly disturbing — not only because of the “disastrous results” it can lead to on the roadways, but also because of what it says about how we function as human beings. How often are we unconsciously misperceiving what is in front of us, filling in the blanks with what we have already know instead of actually directing our attention to the present? Technology is just one significant facilitator of this phenomenon that is more fully the progeny of that pernicious myth called multitasking.

How can we separate the blessing from the curse, the good from the bad, life instead of death, if we don’t even let ourselves see what is, now? “See,” look, pay attention, the Torah commands us, because actually seeing is hard and complicated, and requires extraordinary effort to battle both external and internal distractions.

But texting and multitasking, of course, are not the only things that obscure our vision in ways that make us believe our past experiences will define our future. In his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the victims of the shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in June, President Obama movingly described the grace God had visited upon us through this tragedy. The grace he referred to is the undeserved gift of God. In Jewish terms, we might call this the flow of God’s “chesed,” lovingkindness, that is always available to us and that we often receive through no merit of our own.

God “has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind,” Obama said. “He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same.”

Through this tragedy, our eyes have been opened to ways in which racism is still thriving in our country. Many of us had been blind to the pain caused by the ongoing, sanctioned, public display of the Confederate flag, and to the persistent systemic racial injustices that enable white people to live with greater dignity and affluence than black people and other minorities. The shooting in the AME Baptist Church, and the repeated incidents of police brutality against African-Americans that have received so much attention this year, have opened our eyes to some of the gaps between where we are as a country and where we want to be.

Like the homeless person on the street that we walk by or step over, the Confederate flag and racial injustice have been hiding in plain sight. We have failed to pay attention to them; we have come to experience them simply as reality — same as it ever was, and will be. In effect, we stopped seeing them.

Maybe we have to do this at times, as an inevitable coping strategy. The pain of living with eyes open to all of the injustices that are seeming fixtures of our society is too painful, especially when the problems are so complex that they seem almost irreparable, inevitable. Perceiving reality as it is, paying attention, can be painful.

But it is infinitely worse to be a victim of that reality: to be homeless; to live in a high-crime, high-poverty area and experience continued discriminatory housing policies that result in segregation; to be a student in a failing school that is underfunded because our system of educational funding rewards wealthier areas with more resources and punishes the poor; to be a victim of police brutality and a criminal-justice system that punishes minorities disproportionately.

See, says the Torah. See clearly what is in front of you. Open your eyes. Allow them to be opened by the grace of circumstance, and by deliberately directed attention.

Awareness alone can’t solve our problems. When we perceive reality unobscured by our resigned acceptance of an unjust status quo, we often feel a mess of uncertainty about how to proceed. But to choose life (as the Torah commands us later, in Deuteronomy 30:19), to make choices (however complex) that push us towards a better world, we must begin by being aware. We must look. We must see.

When we do so — and allow ourselves to be transformed and our hearts opened — in the words of President Obama, “If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change.”

Rabbi Daniel Klein is director of admissions at the Rabbinical School and director of student life at Hebrew College.

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  • Alan Sherman

    Thank you for these wonderful words, Daniel. A very important message for us all to think about this week and beyond.