What does one see in front of one’s eyes? I have in mind not the physiological question of how sharp our sight is, but the emotional, or perhaps moral, issue of what we perceive in the situation which lies before us. Or maybe these different facets of seeing are all interlinked.
Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the ‘night of the broken glass’ of 9th November 1938, on which synagogues across Germany were set on fire, properties smashed, thirty thousand Jewish men arrested and many tens murdered. My grandfather was taken to Dachau, my father’s uncle to Sachsenhausen; both eventually managed to flee to Britain.
After being made to perform humiliating exercises in one of Frankfurt’s halls, my grandfather was taken with other Jewish prisoners toDachau. He remembered that as they left the premises where they had been brutally bullied, a man handed each of them a bottle of milk. Who it was, or how that man found the courage and the practical means to perform this act of kindness my grandfather did not nor could ever know.
On the train they were accompanied by two German soldiers, SS men. One of them, my grandfather recorded, made gestures for the whole duration of the several hour long journey indicating hanging and having one’s throat slit. The other got out at every station and brought water for each of the prisoners. The question of what made him able to perceive what his fellow soldier could not see is among the most enduring moral concerns of humankind.
Such situations do not only arise in extremis. A friend told me how he was stuck irritatingly in the queue at the supermarket behind a person who seemed unable to get the small change out of his purse to pay for a loaf of bread, a carton of milk and a couple of tomatoes. All of a sudden his annoyance gave way as he saw. The man’s clothes showed that he was poor. It wasn’t slowness or clumsiness; he simply didn’t have the extra thirty or forty pence for those tomatoes and didn’t know what to do. ‘I wish I could have been quicker’, my friend told me later, ‘I would have put the coin on the cash desk’. But he saw.
The Torah enjoins us to do ‘what is good and right in the eyes of God’. But we aren’t God, and we see the world with human eyes. Between us and what lies before us many filters intervene: our ignorance, tensions, lack of time, selfishness, want of compassion and so forth. Perhaps more disturbingly, and like that soldier on the train, it may be the very ideology impressed upon us that makes us unable simply to see the suffering person, but instead the monstrous, despised other whom we are called on to hate.
But when we do really see, it is possible that we may have a certain advantage even over God. For can the immortal, powerful God really understand what it’s like to be frightened, weak, alone, hungry and full of heart-ache?
What would we not do, when we have the eyes, and heart, to see?