May 21, 2019

Torah Portion

Seeing Beyond Our Culture

Parashat Shemot(Exodus1:1-6:1)

By Rabbi Ed Feinstein

My son was 7 the first time he saw a beggarstanding beside the freeway offramp: a large man, disheveled andfilthy, with a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “WILL WORK FORFOOD.” “Abba, who is that man?” my son asked. “Why is he standingthere?” That was difficult.

More difficult was the moment, a month or solater, when he no longer noticed. The beggar had become part of thelandscape, the unnoticed backdrop of daily experience: stop sign,street light, beggar, street sign, crosswalk, tree, et al. We nolonger see him.

Sight is a matter of light striking the eye andsending an impulse through the optic nerve to the brain. But visionis much more complicated. Vision is conditioned by culture, bypersonality, by expectation. Vision is not passive; it is an act ofwill. We see when we want to see. We are blind because we refuse tosee. We see what culture trains us to see. We overlook what ourculture prefers we ignore. We perceive through screens established byculture.

The Exodus from Egypt begins with the liberationof vision. Follow the word roeh (“to see”) in this week’sportion.

Moses is raised by two women, each with anextraordinary ability to see what others do not. His birth mothersees in him signs of cosmic significance. She echoes Genesis: “Shesaw him, that he was good” (Exodus 2:2). His adoptive mother findsthe baby’s basket floating in the Nile. “She opened [it] and saw him,the child — here, a boy weeping! She pitied him and she said, ‘Oneof the Hebrew’s children is this!'” (Exodus 2:6, translation byEverett Fox). She doesn’t see an escaped slave, a plot to subvert thepolicies of her father, the Pharaoh. She doesn’t see an objectifiedOther — the vermin infecting the Egyptian body politic. She sees ababy. To make the point, the Torah doesn’t have her hear a cryingbaby. Instead, she sees him weeping. She doesn’t feel revulsion foran enemy. She feels pity and love for an abandoned child.

Moses inherits this ability to see beyond hisculture. “He went out to his brothers” (Exodus 2:11). The firstExodus? When Moses turns away from the palace culture and sees theworld through new eyes. Raised in two very different homes, hechooses his identity and perspective: “He saw theirsuffering.”

What was a slave in the mind of Egypt? A slave wasan appliance. Few of us worry deeply about the suffering of ourtoaster or the microwave’s pain. A slave was an object. But Mosesdoesn’t see slaves. He sees human beings. And not just human beings,but he sees his family, identifying with their suffering.

“He saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man –one of his brothers.” What would the average Egyptian, coming uponthis scene, have witnessed? Nothing. A scene so ordinary that itwould likely not have been seen at all. Just a slave masterdisciplining a recalcitrant slave — the Egyptian equivalent ofkicking a tire or jump-starting a car.

What did Moses see? Not a slave master, butish mitzri, aEgyptian man. Not a slave, but ishivri, a Hebrew man, me’echav, his brother. He seestwo human beings. One cruelly inflicting pain on another. And he ismoved. He is outraged.

Our study of history typically focuses on themovement of nations, on war and peace, on vast economic and socialmovements. The Torah knows this perspective. But it also knows thatrevolutions begin in the eyes — in one individual human being’sextraordinary vision.

And so it is that only after Moses sees, can Godsay, “I have genuinely seen the pain of My people inMitzraim.”

Redemption begins in the blink of an eye.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

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