Seeing the Other, Seeing Ourselves


In this week’s Torah reading, Moses says something different. This time, Moses urges the Israelites to use their eyes, not their ears. Why? 

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to use their ears. “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is One,” we heard in parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 6:4). While this line is familiar to us as part of our liturgy, the Shema is just one of many times that Moses tells the people to listen — to God, to him, and to the commandments and teachings of Torah. And we repeat this process, exhorting each other to hear and to listen each time we recite the Shema together. Listening and hearing are keys to the Jewish process of learning, and we use them constantly to pass on Jewish texts and traditions.
In this week’s Torah reading, Moses says something different: “Re’eh — Look!” This time, Moses urges the Israelites to use their eyes, not their ears. Why? 
When we hear something, we need not connect the sound with who or what is producing it. The Israelites experience this kind of hearing at Mt. Sinai, when they hear a resounding voice, yet see nothing. That experience represents one type of learning, the learning of laws and principles, rules and ideologies. That type of learning is certainly crucial to human existence. But, as the Torah teaches us this week, it is not enough.
While what we learn through hearing can guide us in the right paths, it can also mislead us. Unfortunately, it turns out that human beings have an immense capacity to use principles and ideologies to justify the cruelest acts that one person can do to another. Stabbing, bombing, burning, killing — all can be justified with sophistry. Twisting the words of the loftiest sentiments and highest ideals, people can turn those ideals on their heads and use them in the service of attacks on others. Horribly, we have seen just such attacks in this country against African Americans in the last few months. 
Sadly, we have also been the witnesses to just these sorts of attacks in Israel in the past few weeks, as Jews — our own people — have twisted Torah in their minds to somehow justify both stabbing a 16-year-old Jewish girl to death at a Pride Parade in Jerusalem and burning an 18-month-old Palestinian child to death in his home in the West Bank.
How can we guard against this horror? How can we check the human tendency to use even the most sublime words to justify horrible actions?
The Torah teaches us the way: “Re’eh — Look!” When ideology or principle seems to be impelling us to extreme action, we need to open up our eyes very wide. We need to look into the eyes of our fellow human beings — those very human beings with whom we disagree, those human beings whom we may fear, those human beings whose actions or ideologies feel threatening to us. We need to look into their eyes and remember what Torah teaches us about the very origin of the human being: “God created the human being in the Divine image” (Genesis 1:27).
All human beings present to us the image of God. There are no exceptions. Cruelty to human beings desecrates the face of the Divine.
Sometimes, seeing needs to trump hearing. If we can truly see the face of the human beings around us, if we can find the Divine in them, past any disagreements or conflicts we may have, then we can turn from our worst impulses toward our best. May God bless us with such vision always. 
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the Rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at:


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