November 20, 2019

The Truth That Blinds

Waking up to the news of the Las Vegas shooting, I saw headlines touting “the five things to know about the shooter.” As if that was all there was to know. And there I was, along with everyone else, gorging myself on quick sound bites of information that gave me the illusion that I knew the story.

It happens this way every time there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tragedy: We become submerged in facts, in the hope that it will help us cope, bring us understanding.

I’m not saying facts aren’t important. I love facts and data. I have an arguably unhealthy obsession with data of all kinds — historical, political, personal. But the more data I collect, the more I am convinced that I understand something — that I have conquered it. And then there’s nothing left to say about it.

Yes, facts are a necessary framework. But they can also obscure our vision.

The rabbis and sages knew this as they compiled the midrashim. They worked to reveal not the facts of the Torah but its silences and omissions — the places where story breaks down. Midrash brings those silences to the forefront.

Consider Genesis 22: God says to Isaac, “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac … and offer him up there.” Abraham says nothing in response to this horrifying request to murder his son. Those who know a bit about Abraham know this is out of character. He argues with God consistently; he is not afraid to push back. But here, Abraham is silent.

Rashi responds to this challenging moment. Perhaps when God asked Abraham to take his son, Abraham said, “But I have two sons,” to which God said, “Your only one.” Abraham’s clever response may have been to suggest that each son (Isaac and Ishmael) is the only son of his mother, to which God may have said, the one “whom you love,” with Abraham insisting, “But, God, I love them both,” with God finally confirming that Isaac is the one.

Rashi reads Abraham’s silence midrashically. He’s less concerned with the facts of the story than with what is absent. He suggests that the silences must not be ignored, and that there is more than one story residing within them. They are opportunities for meaningful dialogue.

Rashi is not resolving the silence of Abraham; nor is he answering the question of why Abraham took Isaac up the mountain without pushing back. Rather, Rashi is presenting one possibility, pointing us toward what is missing in the text rather than what appears readily. Focus on what you don’t see, he suggests. He is moving us to dialogue. A midrashic response is never a final answer or revelation of fact. Each response implies the existence of another. It’s what keeps the text alive.

But what about the most compelling absences of our day — the ones brought about by violence and suffering? What about recent tragedies?

After catastrophes, we struggle with unanswerable questions. We do so with fervor and intensity, but the impulse quickly becomes negative as we impose story and speculation onto absence.

My inclination, upon hearing about Las Vegas, was to scan the available data and categorize it. It’s a convenient practice, but also dangerous: Once we do this, we stop listening and talking. After a mass shooting, we rush to identify a perpetrator’s gender, ethnicity, religion, mental health — perhaps at the expense of things less obvious. We lose story when we do this, and losing story means losing our way forward, toward a time when such events are no more.

It happens this way every time there is a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tragedy: We become submerged in facts, in the hope that it will help us cope, bring us understanding.

“I did not witness the most important events of my life,” says the character Jakob in Anne Michaels’ novel “Fugitive Pieces.” “My deepest story must be told by a blind man.”

It’s a line from a book to which I return continually. Jakob, years after witnessing the extermination of his family, is writing his memoirs. But he finds that it is precisely what he saw that is most impossible to articulate.

He has no words. He knows nothing — although he saw everything — and he won’t pretend that he does. He acknowledges, instead, the dangers of claiming to know the complete story.

In a world where we imagine we are blind to nothing given the pervasiveness of visual images, we privilege quick data over silent reflection and humility. We strive desperately to put together the pieces of each puzzle, leaving no gaps. We recoil from the idea of blindness.

Until we can acknowledge what we don’t know, we will be blinded by what we do know. 

MONICA OSBORNE is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book, “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma,” will be published later this year.