Several years ago, as I prepared to pray early one morning while standing by water’s edge on a beautiful Florida beach, the sun rose over the horizon, gleaming a fiery orange. In front of me rolled the seemingly endless expanse of ocean, its waves filled with life and the mysteries of life’s origins. Behind me rose ultra-swanky hotels with their ghastly colored facades, each one uglier and gaudier than the next. I was all alone. It was just me, the water, and hundreds of people walking, jogging, slurping coffee and gabbing along the boardwalk behind me.
Alone is often a state of mind. As far as I was concerned, I was truly alone as I wrapped myself in my tallit and tefillin and began to recite the morning blessings. I was oblivious to the possible stares and befuddlement of beachwear clad passersby who would see me in my strange prayer garb from a distance. As I tried talking to God, my mind wandered helplessly back and forth between words of my siddur (prayer book) and the awe inspiring setting of the ocean that can produce almost instant inspiration.
Then I saw him. He was probably in his mid-twenties, though his heavy black parka in which he huddled with the hood over his head made him look older. Thick black sneakers with the laces untied came up above his ankles, and he seemed not the least bit aware or disturbed that he was dressed for upstate New York in February while around us a clear, seventy-five degree day was dawning.
Fairly close to the water, and no more than twenty feet away from him with no one else close by, I was instantly repelled by him. Inferring from his dress and behavior that he was homeless and mentally ill, I was overtaken by a primal fear for my safety. I almost instinctively began planning how to flee him if he approached me. Having encountered my share of mentally ill homeless people, some of whom were violent, when I lived in New York City, I decided that it was in my best interests to avoid eye contact and to move away from him quickly.
As I stood near him in a state of quiet panic and suspicion, my mother’s voice – of all things — suddenly broke through the cloud of terror and distraction inside my head: “Don’t run away from him or mistreat him. For all you know, he could be the Messiah.” All laughter aside at the absurdity of the situation, I wasn’t really surprised that her advice popped into my head just then. From time to time since my childhood, she has reminded me and my siblings of that ancient Jewish folk teaching, impressing upon us that each person is so precious it is always possible for anyone – even the anonymous homeless man walking the beach — to be God’s messenger dressed in deceptive clothing.
I didn’t run away. I stayed to watch him lie down in the sand, oblivious to me and the rest of humanity, as the ocean wind crept gently around us. We were twenty feet apart, both of us out of synch with the world, but still separated from each other by light years of radically different fortunes. I was a privileged, middle class man enjoying God’s sunny company while wearing Bermuda shorts. He was a homeless man, clothed in the winter-dark, frightening colors of mental illness. My heart opened to this person who I did not know, who I would never befriend and whose life I could not change. With my compassion for him overcoming my fear, I began to weep as I touched the fragile yet persistent bond of humanity drawing us together. My mother’s voice faded, and I imagined God responding to my prayers by asking me: “Is your heart breaking for this man?” “Yes,” I answered between sobs. “Good,” I imagined God saying, “Now you can truly begin to pray.”
By not turning away from from that homeless man, I think I became a more prayerful and compassionate person, but isn’t that self-serving on my part? Certainly, at the moment of this encounter, I needed to balance helping him with common sense about my own safety and limitations. But wouldn’t the world have been better served if I had said a kind word to him and bought him a sandwich? I will never know for sure. What I do know is that stopping my own prayer to watch him intently reinforced for me the point that a significant difference exists between merely seeing someone with your eyes and taking the risk to truly see that person with your heart. The simple Hebrew word, ra-ah, to see, is used in the Bible to convey to help us to distinguish between both kinds if sight more critically. Here are some examples of this.
When Pharaoh tries to execute genocide against the Israelites, he tells the midwives, “When you look upon (literally see) an Israelite woman’s birth stool, if the newborn is a boy kill him.” The midwives fear God and refuse to commit murder for the king. Though the word for “they feared” in Hebrew is va-tir-ena, a word with a completely different verb root, it is a homonym for the Hebrew word va-tirena, which means “they saw.” This word and sound play hints to us that these women feared God by resisting Pharaoh, because they saw God in each child whose birth they assisted.
Pharaoh’s daughter has every reason to ignore the Israelites’ suffering all around her. Why look at the oppression her father has created, when it is more beneficial to her to preserve the interests of her family and her royal class? Yet, the Bible tells us three times that, while bathing in the Nile River, she sees Moses’ basket, she sees Moses, and she sees that he is an Israelite boy, whereupon she shows him pity and saves his life, likely at grave risk to her own life. She sees the living refuse abandoned by the despised Israelite slaves washing up on the shore of the Nile, but only in the most basic physical sense. What she sees in a deeper way is this one child in desperate need of her help, whom she sets out to help in a conspiratorial pact with Moses’ sister and with her own servants.
Moses, an adopted prince of Egypt, has been nursed and weaned by his own biological mother, Yocheved. This influences how he chooses to view the Israelites, whom the Bible calls his people whose suffering he sees. It is that seeing which causes him to see the Egyptian task master beating and abusing a slave whom he doesn’t know, yet whom he defends, when he kills the Egyptian.
Finally, the early chapters of Exodus repeatedly describe God seeing the Israelites, who are steeped in oppression. In these contexts, the word ra-ah really means that God took note of the Israelites, refusing, as the commentator Rashi tells us, to hide God’s eyes from them. It is significant that each use by the Bible of this word, ra-ah, is always accompanied by its use of the Hebrew verb yada, to know someone or something in a deeply intimate way. Seeing the Israelites, taking note of their suffering presence, is one way in which God shows them intimate love and concern.
How and whether we make the transition from mere physical sight to moral or spiritual sight depends upon how we decide to see or not see the people around us. Our fears of what people on society’s margins might do to us can easily turn them into the Other in our eyes, leading us to ignore or to shun them, especially if those fears spawn hatred. It is more likely that we just fail to see them altogether. They are invisible to us even though they are in our sights all day long: the homeless men and women walking our streets, the disenfranchised youth caught in endless cycles of failure, poorer people of color who are easy racial targets, the minimum wage employees working three jobs to barely feed and clothe their families.
That morning on the beach, I was lucky enough to see that homeless man the way our biblical heroes and God would see him: not merely with physical sight, but with a vision that embraces oppressed people as whole human beings in need of protection. Obviously, we cannot have God’s perfection, so we are often short sighted: our apathy, privilege, self-absorption and fear cause us to miss those people who are right in front of us. That is why the Bible provides us with the role models of Exodus. They had the ability to see what oppression really looks like by truly looking at the Israelite slaves as sisters and brothers and not as Other, and they found the courage to act upon their insights. May we be worthy to possess such vision.