Bereishit– Blind servants, enlightened sinners, the Haredim and us

Many of us have felt saddened and angered by the conduct of some in the Haredi community; the failure to socially distance, to wear masks, to abide by the rules, to care about anyone but themselves. Why does their disregard bother us? Because it is dangerous, because it is selfish, because it defies science and logic, because it reflects badly on the rest of us. We also just don’t understand how those who purport to be the upholders of the faith, can act in ways so far removed from what we understand to be its core values.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Beyond specific factors at play, every ideology and every path of life held up as being the be all and end all, to the exclusion of everything else, risks descending into chaos and causing pain to others. Certainty is a terrible affliction. Absolute unswerving dedication to a particular cause often leads to myopia. The focus could be a religion, a political ideology, an obsession with a particular person, anything taken to extremes. Whenever we are fixated, the world becomes narrowed. When we obsess, we can see only that which is near to us, and when something challenges our worldview, it is the challenger that must be wrong, not us.

This week’s haftara is from Isaiah 42, a prophecy aimed at comforting the Jews at the time of the first exile. (It’s the one that encourages us to be “a light to the nations”.) Here is what Isaiah says at verse 19:

“Who is as blind as my servant? So deaf as the messenger I send? Who is as blind as the chosen one? As blind as the servant of the LORD?”

The prophet continues. The servant “sees many things but pays no attention”. His “ears are open, but he hears nothing”. I love that – the lights are on, but there is no one at home. In other words, those who call themselves God’s servants are blind and deaf- not physically- but more fundamentally. We might say that they have fallen in love with their own imaginings, their own assessment of what is right and good, stopped up their ears to the sound of the universe, the wisdom of humankind, the face of the other. There is something in the nature of unthinking dedication to any cause which leads in that direction.

But there is another path humankind has taken which is also fraught with danger, and that is believing that knowledge alone can bring salvation and make us God-like. In Bereishit, chapter 3, Adam and Eve were given only one restriction. Don’t eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. What argument did the serpent use to entice Eve to eat the fruit?

“God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God who knows good and bad.”

And indeed, after Adam and Eve had eaten of the fruit, we read: “the eyes of both of them were opened.” They perceived that they were naked, sewed together leaves and made themselves clothes. Adam and Eve achieved an enlightenment of sorts but were punished for their hubris, their insatiable desire to understand everything, which we have inherited.

We have here an interesting contrast between the parshah and its haftarah from Isaiah. Both the parshah and haftarah deal with enlightenment. Eve and Adam eat of the tree and have their eyes opened. In contrast, the eyes of Isaiah’s servants of God remain firmly shut. It is noteworthy that Adam and Eve, the rebels, achieve insight, whereas Isaiah’s pious servants do not. This is an inversion of what we might expect. But God does not seem to be happy with either approach.

Taken in the round, the Torah wishes to warn us away from treating knowledge as power but is also concerned lest our devotion and dutifulness make us impervious to knowledge altogether. What is required is a balance between wisdom and humility.

Achieving such balance is really hard. But Isaiah 42:21 provides us with a barometer, a way of knowing that we are heading in the right direction. This is the pasuk found at the end of the uva l’zion prayer, recited daily, and which we use to introduce kaddish d’rabbanan (the rabbinic kaddish). It reads: “The LORD desires His [servant’s] righteousness that he may magnify and glorify His Teaching.”

This then should be the aim, always- to aggrandize the Torah, to teach the world something which is worthy of being listened to, to act in ways which are attractive to those beyond our communities. We do these things, not for our own sake, but because it ensures that we are ‘in the zone’, avoiding the two extremes of blind godliness on the one hand and seeking to turn ourselves into God on the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Dr Harris Bor is a barrister (trial lawyer) specializing in commercial litigation and international arbitration based in London. He is also is an adjunct lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies, and teaches at JW3, London in the areas of Jewish thought and history.
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