Thursday, January 15, 2015

Opening Our Eyes / Parshat Va-era 2015/5775

Daniel Goleman both coined the term “Emotional Intelligence” and wrote a wonderful book by that title. He tells the story of encountering a homeless man in New York City. Hardly an unusual encounter, you may be thinking, and you would be correct. In fact, Goleman was in New York to research and write a piece for The New York Times about homelessness at the time. Here’s his account:

One day… at the end of the day, I went downI was going down to the subway. It was rush hour and thousands of people were streaming down the stairs. And all of a sudden as I was going down the stairs I noticed that there was a man slumped to the side, shirtless, not moving, and people were just stepping over him—hundreds and hundreds of people. And because my urban trance had been somehow weakened [by researching the problem of homelessness], I found myself stopping to find out what was wrong.

Why did people stream past this man without noticing him lying in plain sight? Why did Goleman stop to check on him? And what happened as a result? More in a moment.

The Israelites have been enslaved for four centuries, toiling under the lashes of Egyptian taskmasters, producing brick upon brick upon brick, and building storehouses for Pharaoh. Finally, God notices. Parshat Va-era begins with God telling Moses: I appeared to your ancestors; my Name is Y-H-V-H, I made a covenant with them and promised them the Land of Israel. So far, God’s words seem unsurprising, particularly since they addresses the very question Moses posed to God: When I come to the Israelites and say to them, The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, What is his name? what shall I say to them? (Exodus 3:13) After all, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, away from his people. If he still retains any knowledge of, or connection to, God, it was either transmitted in his mother’s milk before he was weaned, or not at all. But then God says something startling:

וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. (Exodus 6:5)

Just now, after 400 years, God hears  the Israelites’ moaning? Not exactly. God took notice earlier. The very first time God took notice of the Israelites’ suffering is recorded in Exodus 2:23:

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָהכד וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹבכה וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּדַע, אֱלֹהִים.

A long time after that the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them. (Exodus 2:23-24)

It would seem that God took no notice of the Israelites until they cried out to God for help. Their vulnerability and suffering did not, in and of themselves, reach God’s notice until the people pleaded for help. But since then, much more time has passed. Moses has been residing in Midian with his wife, Tzipporah, and father-in-law, Jethro. He has encountered God on Horeb through the divine manifestation of the burning bush, where God tells Moses, I am mindful of their sufferings (Exodus 3:7)—this is the second time God takes note—and on this occasion commissions Moses to appear before Pharaoh. Moses demurs; God insists; Moses demurs; God promises to send Aaron with him. And indeed Moses and Aaron make their first visit to Pharaoh, which results only in Pharaoh increasing the quota of bricks required of the slaves and forcing them to find their own straw. Now God speaks again to Moses, and this time says, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites.  (see Exodus 6:5 above). This is the third time God hears or notices the Israelites’ suffering.

God takes note of the Israelites on three occasions, but it is only after the third time that God finally sets in motion a plan to secure their release from bondage.

Sometimes it is most difficult to notice the people who are right in front of us. It is as if their pain and suffering erect an enormous wall between them and us. The barrier isn’t visual; it’s emotional. How many homeless people have we, as individuals, encountered? How many times have we all lowered our eyes so we don’t “see” them or “notice” them? How many times will we, as a society, need to note their suffering before we—both as individuals and as a society—respond? It seems it took three rounds for God.

Perhaps Torah is inviting us to make Moses our role model here. The very first time Moses ventures out of the palace as a young man, what does he see? He might have seen the beauty of the land and the Nile River. He might have noted the power projected by Pharaoh’s palace, viewed from without. He might have seen vast building projects erected to honor his father and strengthen his rule. We don’t know if Moses notices any of these because Torah doesn’t record it. Instead, we know that Moses witnesses the slaves at labor and a taskmaster beating a slave. Immediately he responds. We can certainly debate his vigilante justice; I’m not defending it. Rather, I want to point out that despite the many other directions in which Moses could easily focus his eyes and mind, he notices human suffering around him first.

A second example: While shepherding Jethro’s flocks, Moses encounters a burning bush. Torah tells us that Moses stops and looks. He notices. He wonders about the meaning of what he sees. He asks himself how he should respond. It doesn’t take Moses three times to notice, or even two. Moses gets it the first time.

It is difficult and painful to see those who are suffering, those who are homeless, those who are hungry, those who are ill. That is entirely understandable. As Daniel Goleman describes, hundreds of people stepped over and around a homeless man slumped against the wall of a subway station. But it is not impossible to overcome our proclivity to not notice or respond.

First we need to understand  our own inclinations to avoid the needs of the neediest. If you like watching videos, here’s one to view. It’s remarkable how willing people are to give money to a man in a business suit, but not to the same man when he appears homeless—even standing in the same spot and making the same request.

Next, we need to move past our prejudices. Take a look what happened when youtube prankster Josh Paler Lin gave a homeless man $100. Note how he spent the money.

(Some have claimed it was all a set-up, but note that Lin has raised more than $100,000 to get Thomas back on his feet.) We’ve all heard the by-now classic argument against giving homeless people a few bucks that “they will probably spend the money on booze or drugs.” Is that a reason? Or is it an excuse?

Most impressive and important in all this is to note that Utah is on track to be the first state in the Union to end homelessness. How? By giving people apartments to live in cleanly, decently, and safely. The result is a major cost-saver to Utah. Read about it here. Kol ha-kavod to Utah.

Let’s return to Daniel Goleman and the homeless man in the New York subway. What happened after he stopped and took notice of the man:

The moment I stopped, half a dozen other people immediately ringed the same guy. And we found out that he was Hispanic, he didn't speak any English, he had no money, he'd been wandering the streets for days, starving, and he'd fainted from hunger. Immediately someone went to get orange juice, someone brought a hotdog, someone brought a subway cop. This guy was back on his feet immediately. But all it took was that simple act of noticing…

Mindfulness is a holy act. Goldman saw the humanity of a person suffering and in need. Can we do the same? With thought, intention, and commitment, I have no doubt we can—as soon as we open our eyes and take note of the people standing before us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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