Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

The Eye of the Beholder: Re’eh 5783

Obtained under Creative Commons license

A few days ago I shared a video on my Facebook feed. It’s an Israeli rap performance entitled “I Don’t Hate” (Ani lo sonei in Hebrew). Modeled on the 2018 video “I’m Not Racist” by Joyner Lucas, “I Don’t Hate” portrays a powerful encounter between two men who are meant to represent typologies in the highly charged social-political debate taking place in Israel today. One is a Jew of Mizrahi (North African/Middle-Eastern) descent. The other is of Ashkenazi background. Neither of them is visibly “religious” (that is, neither is a Haredi Jew).

The two sit at a table and take turns speaking honestly and passionately about how they feel the other is treating them—with condescension, anger, contempt. They both want to feel a sense of unity, but their grievances are profound and powerful. Towards the end of the video, the two stand in silence as a siren—like those played in Israel on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day—is played. They then share a hug—not having resolved their differences, but evidently committed to figuring out some way to live together.

Others re-shared the video, and I’ve now seen it posted by a number of rabbinic colleagues. Mostly it has sparked responses along the lines of “Powerful,” “Moving,” “So hard,” “Praying for unity.” But I also got some comments that, smartly, pointed out what’s not in the video. One Israeli friend observed that this was a heavily masculinized portrayal. Another pointed to the absence of Haredim. A third pointed to the fact that this was an argument only between two Jews—what about Arabs and other minorities in Israel? (Point of fact: There was another video portraying an Israeli Jew and Arab much like this one that went viral two years ago.) One said he cried the first time he saw it, and then he started to feel manipulated. And one stated the obvious, which is that the problems in Israel are much deeper than just being able to talk about them and “hug it out,” as these characters do. At the roots of the conflict today are profound questions of power, rights, and identity—which are far larger, and with larger stakes and, concomitantly, greater potential for bloodshed, than one-on-one interpersonal conflicts. In the eyes of these commenters, the video, by attempting to simplify things, seemed to be trying to sweep these issues under the rug.

What most struck me about the whole episode is how my friends—that is, human beings like you and me—can look at the same video and see such different things. Some see honesty and truth-telling, others see wishful thinking and myopia. Some see an earnest call for brotherhood, others see all the people who don’t qualify as “brothers.”

Parashat Re’eh, whose name literally translates to “see,” invites us to reflect on questions of perception. In particular, I would draw us to chapter 12, which includes three references to doing right in someone’s eyes. Describing the centralization of the sacrificial system that will come about after they conquer the land, Moses tells the Israelites, “You shall not act at all as we now act here, each of us doing what is right in our own eyes” (12:8). Rather, they will have to give up some personal autonomy for the sake of the collective. Then, in verses 25 and 28, Moses makes explicit that the gaze through which the Israelites’ actions is to be judged is not their own, but that of the Divine. Here’s verse 28, which sums up the chapter: “Be careful to heed all these commandments that I enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of YHVH your God.”

The difficulty, of course, is trying to discern when the eyes we’re seeing with are our own and when they are those of the Holy One. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonye, in the earliest work of Hasidut ever published (Toldot Yaakov Yosef, 1780), offers this idea: “The two eyes of the human being are a hint to us: that we should see and monitor ourselves as to how we can do what is good and right in the eyes of the Ineffable and other human beings. After we see clearly and truly with one eye, we need to do so with the other” (comment on Parashat Bo). R’ Yaakov Yosef, like the larger Rabbinic tradition that emphasizes both human agency and Divine revelation, seems to understand that, on a moment to moment level, we can, and perhaps must, cultivate our sight dialectically. Our perspective is always partial—even when we think we’re seeing what God sees.

In my former life in higher education, I came to appreciate that our study is fundamentally animated by two questions: What’s here? and, What’s not here? The former gives rise to the conception of liberal learning as finding and perpetuating that which is best in a tradition—reading the classics, allowing them to, in the words of a famous Yale document from 1828, provide the “discipline and furniture of the mind.” The latter, however, generates the notion of liberal education as critical thinking: Not appreciating what’s in front of us, but seeing its limitations—the conditions under which it was written, the author’s explicit or subversive agenda, what’s obscured or hidden from view. When done well, the two questions, these two ways of seeing, work in a healthy, productive tension. When done less skillfully, they’re out of balance.

I don’t have a definitive answer about how to look at the video I posted. I can see truths in the words of those who love it and those who critique it, and I can hold both of them. What I feel confident in saying is that the Torah calls us to infuse our justice with compassion, to be mindful of our drives and appetites and respond to them with wisdom and skill. Our practices—from mindful eating to observing our sacred times, all of which are discussed in this Torah portion—are the disciplines through which we cultivate that mindful presence and wisdom. We need them now as much as ever.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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