Some years ago, on a trip to Israel, we were invited for a special visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s remarkable Holocaust museum.
We met Shaya ben Yehuda, director of international relations. A professorial man in his late 50’s, soft of features, and of gentle demeanor, he told us that the Yad Vashem archive holds 140 million documents. Until recently, they were stored in file cabinets, in warehouses; far too many to catalog. But some years ago, Yad Vashem obtained a super-computer, and a software protocol that scans and catalogs documents, and most remarkably, connects them to one another. Imaging a jigsaw puzzle with 140 million pieces, in 20 different languages, from two dozen countries and cultures....and suddenly, we have a way to put them together. Our project, he tells us, is to make a dossier, a biography of every victim of the Holocaust. Every single one.
He shows us an example. A French woman, Hanna Goldberg, was taken from her family home in Paris in 1943, and died at Auschwitz later that year. In 1980, her sister, now living in New York, visited Yad Vashem and filed a reports identifying Hanna as a victim of the Holocaust, and she left an old photo. For thirty years, this remained, as so many other documents, sitting in a file.
Once the computer was up and running, the pieces began to come together. Shaya pulled a document out of the file: This is the deportation order that took Hanna Goldberg from Paris to a holding camp in D’Ancy. And here, another deportation order transferring her from D’Ancy to Auschwitz. Here is the train manifest with her name and the number of the boxcar that took her. And here, the log from Auschwitz, on the day she arrived, which was the day she was taken to the gas chamber and murdered. But there is one more thing, he tells us, and this is astonishing. Here is a letter Hanna wrote to her mother and sister. Somehow, she wrote it on the train on the way to Auschwitz, and dropped it out of the car when the train stopped in a French village. It was retrieved by a French railway worker, who turned it over the troops who liberated the town, who sent it on to Yad Vashem. In the letter to her mother and her sister, Hanna Goldberg says, please don’t be afraid. Please don’t be sad. Don’t give up on life and don’t give up hope. I’m strong. You, be strong too.
Now, Shaya tells us, now Hanna Goldberg is a person again. The Nazis took her and made her a number. We have made her a human being once again. She is a person, with a soul; with love and with courage. This is what we hope do for every victim of the Holocaust. Give them back their names, their faces, their words, their stories.
By this time, we’re all weeping openly. So I asked him, Shaya, how do you do this? Why do you do this?
Why do I do this? He looked at me for a long moment, and then finally...Because we Jews, we don’t throw anyone away. Not the living. Not the dead. They are too precious. WE DON’T THROW ANYONE AWAY.
As good a definition of Jewish ethics as I know.
It begins in the eyes. Who we see. Who we don’t see. Sight is a physiological reflex when light hits the retina. Vision is something else. Vision is a social construct. We are taught what to see. We are taught what not to see.
Moses, raised as a prince in Pharaoh's palace, enjoyed a life of pampered luxury while his people languished under brutal slavery. One day, the Torah teaches, he stepped out of the palace.
What does he see? Slaves in Egypt were socially invisible. A slave was no more than a quantity of work embodied. va’yar b’seevlotam, says the Torah. Something happens to Moses -- his eyes are opened and he sees the slavery, the suffering of his people.
Moses sees an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man. Not a master disciplining a recalcitrant slave, but two human beings engaged in a transaction of violent brutality. He looks past all the screens erected by his culture. He doesn’t see class, or status, or position. He sees only the truth of human suffering. He sees, and he feels, and he is moved to respond. That’s the beginning of our ethics.
I remember many years ago, we came home to LA to visit family. I got off the freeway in West LA, and there was a man standing at the offramp with a big sign, WILL WORK FOR FOOD. I stopped and stared, transfixed. I had lived in New York for years and saw plenty of panhandlers and street people. But not here in sunny Los Angeles. Life was different here. It was a wonderment: Will work for food? Amidst all the prosperity that is America?! And then from the back of the car came the voice of my young son, Abba, who is that man? What does he want? Good questions. Who is that man? Who are we? As the light changed, I rolled down the window and gave the fellow a few dollars.
The real shock came a few months later. By then then every offramp had its beggar. Men, women, sometimes families. This time we came off the freeway, and the child in the back seat didn’t notice. They became invisible; part of the urban landscape. There was a stoplight, a tree, a trash can, a beggar with a sign, and a billboard...unremarkable, unnoticed, invisible, disposable.
Our world is full of invisible people, the people we throw away.
A friend was taking one of her last exams in nursing school. As she came to the end of this exam, she came across this question --
What is the name of the person who mops the floors in this building?
She didn’t know if the question was serious, so she skipped it.
After class, one of the students asked the instructor if that question counted toward their final grade. Absolutely, replied the professor. In your career you will meet many people. Every one of them has a name, a story. Everyone has dreams and hurts. Every one of them is significant.
And every one deserves your attention and your care. That’s what our profession is all about. That’s what life is all about. ....Her name, by the way, was Dorothy.
We call them “essential workers.” The truth is they are typically underpaid, overworked, and over-represented among those afflicted with COVID. The ones who bag the groceries, deliver the packages, mop the floors, care for our elderly parents, and teach our kids. We turn them into objects, the embodiment of a task. And if we’re in a hurry, or the tomatoes get smushed, or the package is late, we snap at them.
The word “respect,” comes from the Latin, respecare, to see again. To look back. To look back and recognize that was a human being we just shouted at, or walked past, or overlooked. And what happens when we do look back? What happens when we call the checker by name and say thank you; when we share our gratitude with the delivery person? Their world brightens. To be seen, to be met, to be acknowledged is a great gift.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would walk home from synagogue on Shabbos morning. One Shabbos, he was approached by a panhandler who asked him for a dollar for food. Heschel looked saddened. My brother, it’s Shabbos, and I don’t carry money. But if you meet me here tomorrow, I’ll be sure to have something for you. The fellow responded: Thank you rabbi, you called me brother....that’s enough.
We need to bring this home. Living together in isolation isn’t easy. Relationships thrive on a diastolic rhythm -- moving away and coming close. But stuck in close quarters, with no distance, we stop seeing and walk past one another. We become furniture in each other’s lives. And those of us who live alone suffer moments when we wonder if our friends and family still remember we exist. The yontiff, we must repent for the times we didn’t notice, didn’t share appreciation, failed to share affection, forgot to express how much we mean to one another. That’s our tshuvah. We need to give one another this precious gift, to see each other.
Years ago, we put up an art exhibition here at VBS. Haunting portraits of the homeless people who live on Venice Beach. The artist is Stuart Perlman, a psychologist who specializes in working with victims of trauma. Living near Venice Beach, he’d seen so many homeless people. He often tried to talk with them, maybe help them. But they wouldn’t trust him. Stuart had taken up painting some years before. So he brought his easel and paints down to the beach and offered $20 to sit for a portrait. And they came.
“I want to hear about your life,” he says as he prepares his paints and canvas. And before long, lives open up, stories flow, emotions long suppressed emerge, a shared humanity blossoms.
There is Daniel, whose portrait conveys weariness and loss. A one time workaholic whose world crumbled a dozen years ago when a drunken driver killed his wife and children.
An elderly man known as “The Colonel,” a Jewish child survivor of concentration camps, whose teeth were knocked out while he served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and his legs blown up in Vietnam.
And Wendy, suffering from cancer, raised by an abusive father, emancipated at age 14, but left to fend for herself on the streets.
Writes Pearlman, “ These were some of the most interesting people I had ever met - loving, kind, accomplished individuals who had experienced deep traumas and misfortunes. I painted the life experiences that were etched on their faces.... I want to paint what people don’t want to see, so they will learn what they need to see, so this world can be a better place.”
We possess a superpower. We walk the world as individuals, but we have a remarkable capacity to step out of ourselves, outside our subjectivity, to share the inner life of another -- to see the world through someone else’s eyes, entering into their feelings, and act in such a way that they know they are understood, that they are heard, that they matter.
Empathy, compassion, mutuality evolved in us, actually in our primate ancestors, over millions of years, enabling us to form families, tribes, communities, which in turn, facilitated our survival as a species. But empathy must be cultivated and refined. Because that same evolutionary process put in a switch. We feel empathy with those in our circle, those most like us. And conversely, we treat those who are different and unfamiliar with fear, suspicion and hostility. Our biology has made it easy to love your neighbor as yourself, but hard to love the stranger.
But that is precisely what the Torah commands. In Exodus:
In Deuteronomy: “.” (Deut 10:19) This is where Torah pushes back against our nature. We are to honor our parents, obey the prophets, revere the elders, but we are commanded to love the stranger. Because the Torah’s ethic is constructed for the singular purpose of dismantling that evolutionary twist -- to teach us to see ourselves in the Other; to release us from fear and hostility, to expand the reach of our empathy. No one’s suffering is irrelevant. No one is to be rendered invisible. No one is outside the circle of our compassion. We don’t throw anyone away.
And that is especially true today. Empathy, compassion, mutual responsibility are not just for yontiff any more. COVID has taught us just how small this planet really is, and just how vulnerable we are. The great irony of COVID is that we must stay apart to prevent its spread, but to cure it, we will need to come together. COVID is a global problem, and it will only be solved with global vision. That’s what we will face in the years ahead. Our issues will be global. And we will have to learn to reach beyond our boundaries and borders, beyond our fears and suspicions, to listen and engage one another, and work together on a global scale if we are to survive. And to do so before it’s too late. Empathy is a survival skill we need now more than ever before.
A story that I love.
A rabbi once asked his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?”
The students thought they grasped the importance of this question. There are, after all, prayers and rites
and rituals that can only be done at nighttime. And there are prayers and rites and rituals that belong only to the day. It is important to know how we can tell when night has ended and day has begun. It is important to get the rites and rituals correct.
So the first and brightest of the students offered an answer: “Rabbi, when I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
A second student offered his answer: “Rabbi, when I look from the fields and I see a house, and I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
A third student offered another answer: “Rabbi, when I see an animal in the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a horse or a sheep, that’s when the night has ended and the day has begun.”
Each answer brought only anguish to the rabbi’s face. And then he began to weep. “No! None of you understands!
“You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all the others. Is that all we can do – dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world split into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it’s not that way, not that way at all!”
The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. “Then, Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”
The Rabbi stared back at his students, and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: “My children, when you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that is your brother, that is your sister, then finally the long, long night has ended and the new day has begun.”
May the long, long night soon come to an end, and the new day at last begin. Gmar Tov.