J. is a 50-year-old man. He’s tall and athletic; he walks with a dancing gait – that is, the short distance he’s allowed to do so in the hallway; he has short dreads and a well-trimmed beard, or at least so it looks. It’s possible that between his arrest and hospital time, he just didn’t have a chance to shave. Or maybe he’s covering the massive lump in his jaw, which the doctors think might be cancerous. When I come to visit, he says, ‘thanks the Lord for every beautiful day, sis!!’ in a cheerful, well-rehearsed singing tone, but soon becomes very teary. I learn that he’s suicidal; that while in prison, he’s been repeatedly raped, taunted and harassed, infected with HIV and other dangerous diseases. He has the mind of a child; he wants his mamma; his education barely exceeds grade school and he can’t spell even the simplest words.
The patient in the next room is a robust older man who’s skillfully maneuvering himself around on a wheelchair, as he’s slowly losing his foot to an infection. He’s been in state prison for more than 25 years, and proudly tells me he’s a terrorist. He says he wants to “blow the whole f-g place up”. He loves having “a suicidal” next door, whom he’d like to recruit for one, final, “little good deed” so we can show all them m-f what the h– we mean”. He’s yells at me from the door: “don’t visit him; he wants to die? let him die”, he emphasizes the word purposefully, “You can’t do no nah-thing for him, but we? We can give him what he wants! it’s time someone show these m- f – a thing or two, I’m not f– kidding”. There is not one sentence without a string of curse words. I listen to the frustration underneath; the years, decades, centuries or feeling mistreated; the fear to tear up too, to not be ‘man enough” and show even a glimpse of the immense overwhelming sadness in his heart.
This is but one hour at my internship at Bellevue which is coming to its end; my heart breaks and sores countless times a day. Our humanity seems so futile, so Divine. We are utterly helpless to extinguish suffering and pain and misery; we are the angels that can place their palms on the ground so another won’t be harmed (Psalms 91:11).
After weeks of emphasizing listening, the Book of Deuteronomy commands us “to see”, to celebrate the gift of our eyes; of this world’s beauty and the choices it presents. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we’re told about aspects of the kosher laws (which animals we can eat), as if, just as we choose what to put inside our stomachs, we should watch what we feed our eyes.
One of the non-kosher birds is the ra’a (ראה – spelled like re’e). The Talmud says about the ra’a that, being a prey bird, “it stands in Babylon and sees a carcass in the Land of Israel”. This is the Talmud’s way of warning us from those times when we’re confused (Babylon, Bavel, related to the root for bilbul, confused) and criticize things we don’t understand from afar, parallel to any such situation where we hasten to condemn things we don’t fully understand. After ‘”graduating” listening, we’re invited to see, but not without a warning: the eyes have the danger is being superficial, as opposed to the ears, which are more internal.
It is interesting to look into where the verb “lir’ot”, to see appears in the Torah. The first is G-d who checks what he created and “sees that it is very good” (Genesis 1:30). There are those who say that G-d did not just “see” the world like we would, but that He put the power to see the world as a complete, full picture. It is easier for us to see the world in separate, often unrelated pieces, but creation was one and we are called to see it as such.
A couple of other places to note the verb “lir’ot”: when Abraham took Isaac to the akeda, it says he “saw the place from afar” (Genesis 22:4). The midrash says that he asked Isaac what he sees, and Isaac said he saw a pillar of fire stretching from heaven to earth atop the mountain. Then he asked his servants, who said they saw nothing. Hence he said to them, “sit here (and wait) with the donkey” (22:5). Donkey in Hebrew is chamor, from the same root as chomer, materialism. Seeing then, already early on, has nothing to do with what “objectively” was ahead, but with what was inside each one. This is not the only place where the Torah suggests that seeing a matter of choice; a matter of what’s in one’s heart (Number 15:39).
And on the other hand, at the height of our closeness to G-d, at the Giving of the Torah, it says: “and all the people see the sounds”… We didn’t hear the sounds, but saw them. There was no separation. We were one and our senses were one.
And last favorite voice on this: Sforno, the Italian commentator of the early 1500’s, says that re’e here is a serious warning: “see, I set before you blessing and curse” – two opposite, definite extremes. You might think, says Sforno, that there are more options in between, but don’t be fooled. There aren’t. The in-between is itself the curse. Choosing life is a choice to see good.
We continue to hear about the Land we’re going to, “a Land of milk and honey”. There are many commentaries what is this milk and honey? Perhaps goats and date palm trees? What could it be? Rav Uri Sharki points out that – in some cases, possibly, symbolically- milk and honey are the only two edible foods produced by non-kosher animals: bees and humans. If so, the gift of the Land is not its lushness, but it’s ability to take something not edible, not digestible, “impure” and turn it into something “pure”, digestible, healing, sweetening, which is also then, what we are called to do.