Pretending we didn’t notice

I was out for a practice run for next Sunday’s marathon when I saw behind an archway a homeless man sitting next to his sleeping bag, a cardboard cup in his hand. I had no money on me; I didn’t stop. But I saw him see me and felt I could I hear him think, ‘Another person who pretends I don’t exist.’

Tomorrow we encounter one of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible. It appears twice in the same section and nowhere else in the entire Torah: lehitaleim, to hide oneself away, to pretend one hasn’t noticed. ‘You may not do that’, the Torah insists: you are not at liberty to turn a blind eye.

The context is animals: You mustn’t see your brother’s ox or sheep astray and carry on as if you hadn’t noticed; you mustn’t find his lost donkey and act as if you never saw.

Perhaps we are tempted to think ‘it’s only animals’, an unpardonable excuse given the wanton cruelty our civilisation habitually inflicts on them, with meagre pity and remorse. If so, Isaiah puts us right, in a passage given prime time on Yom Kippur morning:

If you see the hungry, feed them; the naked, clothe them; the oppressed, free them. Do not hide from your own flesh.

If we’re inclined to say to ourselves, ‘But it’s their flesh, not mine. I’m OK’, we should bear in mind Shylock’s masterful summary of what common humanity means: ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed?’

Lehitaleim is a gripping term, a reflexive verb formed from the root a.l.m, hidden, which also gives us the noun olam, the rabbinic Hebrew for ‘world’. We live in a universe of concealment, the mystics insisted, and the art is to learn to see.

Some things, it must be said, are obvious; they ‘stare you in the face’: a lost animal, lost child, refugee, the lost mobility of someone who can’t get into the building, or bathroom, because there’s no proper access. In such cases the Torah insists that we may not pretend we didn’t notice.

Other matters are less apparent. I’ve often had the privilege of being in the company of people who truly see, – and deeply:

‘Did you notice how exhausted she looked? She always makes light of what she has on her shoulders. But…’

‘He was smiling. But he looked so pale…’

People like that see not just with their eyes but with their heart. They teach and humble us all.

In the long confession on Yom Kippur we ask atonement ‘for the sin of haughty eyes.’ The opposite is to have eyes of loving kindness and compassion, to see and not turn away, notice and not ignore. It’s the only antidote to the world’s hard-heartedness.

When the mystics describe our world as a domain of concealment, they don’t just mean that there is much suffering of which we fail to take note. They understand the presence of God to be hidden throughout creation, covered over by the material form which all being takes, driven down into the recesses of our consciousness because of our preoccupation with practical concerns.

But da’at, deeper, reflective awareness, can reveal to us the preciousness of everything, the inestimable value of all life, that there is not a living being which does not matter. In the rare, gifted moments when we see like that, we look with the heart and see to the heart. Then we realise; then we do not turn aside.

In the bewildering rush of the ceaseless encounters which urban life entails, we are bound to be overwhelmed. Inevitably, we will sometimes turn aside, turn a blind eye, hide ourselves away, pretend we hadn’t noticed. We couldn’t survive otherwise.

But sometimes, as much as we can, we must look and see, see and act, act from the heart. Otherwise we won’t know we have a heart anymore, and the purpose of life is to deepen the heart’s compassion.

 

Bribery, blindness and politics

Three words encapsulate Jewish values: tzedek, ‘righteousness’, the practice of justice in all our dealings (which implies honesty and integrity); tzedakah, a virtually untranslatable noun which expresses the vision, commitment and generosity to work proactively for a more just world; and hesed, ‘faithful lovingkindness’, which should permeate all our actions.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on the first of these terms, tzedek, with the famous verse ‘Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue,’ preceded by this sharp warning:

Do not take a bribe, because bribes blind the eyes of the wise and pervert the words of the just.’ (Deuteronomy 16:19)

I always thought bribes meant serious criminality; that bribery was corruption writ large. I realise now that it can also be something more refined, subtle enough that we may not even notice we’re part of it.

The issue came up in a conversation about climate change with an Australian colleague: ‘Democracy’s part of the problem’, he said. ‘Democracy invites short-termism,’ I agreed.

Neither of us had the remotest intention of preferencing a different form of government. But we were concerned that leaders who depend on frequent re-election want to please their voters who naturally and usually rightly want what’s in their own best interests. The result can be that essential long-term goals, which require the courage to make short-term changes and sacrifices, are pushed into the background.

Foremost among these is the protection and regeneration of the earth. But the money to be made on the immediate exploitation of irreplaceable resources blinds the eyes of those who should be wiser. Their children, too, will pay the price. But I don’t see why my children, or the children and children’s children of billions of others, should have to pay it too.

It’s easy to incriminate others. I realise, though, that it’s not just ministers of state who’re blinded. I know from experience that it’s not always easy for ministers of religion to say what people may not want to hear. The so-called ‘fine line’ between leadership, courage, tact and empathy, not to mention the awareness that we may be mistaken, is more like a net beneath a trapeze artist than a line at all.

Few of us face truth with the integrity we should.

The Talmud observes that ‘a judge who judges truly [refusing to take bribes] is like a partner to God in the work of creation.’ An unnamed commentary offers this explanation:

Shochad, (the Hebrew for ‘bribe’) derives from chad, meaning ‘one’. A judge who takes a bribe becomes at one with the litigant who gives it…But the judge who refuses to take bribes, is at one with neither litigant. To such a judge God says, ‘Since you rejected partnership with them, I shall consider you a partner with me.’

The etymology is almost certainly wrong. But the idea is profound. The path of integrity can be lonely and hard. There is a price to following inconvenient truths and eschewing convenient untruths. But if we want to be ‘partners with God in sustaining creation’ we must refuse the alluring bribes of short-term gain and listen to enduring wisdom.

I’m frightened by the populism which has taken hold of politics and nations, and the bullies of any party or persuasion whose paths it paves.

Judaism, like all faiths rooted in a just and sustaining vision, requires us to be faithful to deeper and enduring values: justice, faithful kindness and partnership with God in caring for creation.

 

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