What we see in others may not only be about them

“Go mommy, the light is green” Sheila Heen’s toddler would enthusiastically say as they sat at a red light on their way to preschool in their Cambridge neighborhood. At first she thought her son was having fun, just playing games. Over time, however, it was clear that he was serious. He’d get upset when they came to the red light, “Why are you stopping? The green light says go.” Sheila and her husband became worried. Their little fella might have a serious issue with color-blindness. But the pediatrician’s tests revealed that he had no such condition. Then one day, Sheila was riding in the backseat when they came to the stoplight. She looked up from the vantage point of her son’s carseat and, of course, to her right, she saw a green light. Realizing that from where he sat, he couldn’t view the overhead light in front, the mystery was solved.

It’s more than a matter of perspective. At stake is also how we view other people. What meaning do we assign to their actions?

The biblical figure named Lot is judged as second-rate in comparison to his uncle Abraham in this week’s portion of Torah. Abraham rushes to greet visitors enthusiastically, prioritizing warm hospitality. Lot, by contrast, simply rises from his seat outside the city of Sodom. Abraham’s deferential bowing to them in sincere, while Lot’s feels forced (Gen. 18:2, 19:1). On the other hand, Larry Cohen offered a much more sympathetic reading at one of this week’s online evening services. The contexts for Lot and Abraham were entirely different. Abraham had just fulfilled a covenant with God. But Lot was operating in the midst of Sodom. Rather than judging him as inferior, perhaps his conduct in context was actually impressive.

What meaning do we assign to those we observe? When we see them feeling strongly, is feeling intense emotions a sign of some character flaw?

Lot’s biblical story ends by making him the progenitor of Moab. That’s the tribal line fo Ruth, King David, and the eventual Messiah. The circumstance outside a destroyed city of Sodom is particularly ugly. Lot’s daughters get him drunk. He, in turn, impregnates them. The genealogy of redemptive hope doesn’t come from some pristine and pure setting. Instead, it will eventually emerge from conditions that originate with moral depravity and drunken incest.

Assigning meaning is done by us and to us. Conclude as you will. In so doing, it’s worth considering how your meaning-assigning about others may not only be about them.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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