This week we read from parashat Re’eh. The parashah’s name translates to the imperative “see!” or “behold!”. We are urged to see that before us lies blessing and curse, and also (in a further development of the connotations of the verb) to “see”, and “understand”, that it is up to us to discern one from the other on “the path that I [G-d] set you upon”. (Devarim 11.28)
So watch your step.
A parashah like this might remind us of…
…hiking through the forest, where rocky footing might cause you to wrench an ankle if you’re not looking.
…walking into a situation at work and seeing for the first time that there’s a problem that you never noticed before.
…feeling sad or grumpy all day until you are suddenly in the presence of someone you love, and understand how blessed you are.
Jewish tradition sets a great deal of value upon taking care to see, in all its meanings, before acting. In the Talmudic tractate Pirke Avot it is written, “Who is wise? the one who can see what a possible result [literally, what is being born].” It is true that, often, to see is to feel compelled to respond: when we see each other in need, we want to help. When we see suffering we seek to alleviate it. And when we see joy, the heart lifts.
There are many things that we see. There are also many things that we think we have seen, and have not; things that we have not seen but can vividly imagine; and that which we long to see, but will not. The Haftarah for this Shabbat, from Isaiah 54, invited our ancestors, in the midst of the experiences of occupation, destruction and exile, to imagine something unseen:
I will lay gems as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires.
Your battlements will be rubies, and your gates precious stones,
the whole encircling wall of gems. (Isaiah 54.11-12)
In the Talmud there is an ancient story of a skeptic who studied this text under Rabbi Yokhanan in a beit midrash, a study hall, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but did not believe it.
He mocked the teaching, saying “even gems of small size are not easily found!”
Some time later the skeptic was on a ship and saw a vision; two angels were carving a giant gem.
The skeptic asked the angels what they were doing, and they replied, using Rabbi Yokhanan’s words exactly, “we are preparing this for the gates of Jerusalem in the future.”
The amazed skeptic returned to the Rabbi in the study hall and cried out to him, “teach, my master, for you teach wonderfully! I have seen that which you have taught, and can say that it is true.”
The Rabbi turned to the skeptic with a scowl. “And if you had not seen it, you would not have believed it?”
And he placed his eye upon the skeptic, who was forthwith turned into a pile of bones. (Bava Batra 75a)
The reaction of the Rabbi seems disturbing. Does he kill the skeptic? Such wonder working is clearly beyond today’s Rabbis. Perhaps more likely, something about the exchange between the skeptic and the Rabbi reduced the skeptic to inconsequentiality. Consider:
In our parashah, the first verse commands us to see. The skeptic, demoralized and unwilling to see the possibility of hope in his situation, mocked those who taught others to see it. This story underscores our ethical responsibility to make that effort to re’eh, “see!” and “understand!” what we are seeing, and what is likely to be born out of that which we see.
And in the final verses from this parashah, we are reminded that we are also seen: “Three times a year…you shall go up to the place G-d has chosen and be seen before ה your G-d”. Devarim 16.16) We are not the center of the universe; as we see, so we are seen, each from our own perspective. So much that we mean to be is misunderstood in the seeing; that is why the ethic of marat ayin, “that which presents to the eye” is such an important concept to remember.
The Rabbi merely saw the skeptic for who he was. Neither he, nor the skeptic’s disbelief, was what turned him into a pile of bones; he did that to himself, by making himself useless as a member of a community that strives to see, and needs encouragement from each other as we try our level best to understand.