Toldot: Tragic Blindness

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

“He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him. . . . . ” (Bereshit / Genesis 27:23)

Dear Friends:

It’s good to be back after a week away! This week, in the portion Toldot, we read of the deception of Yitzhak by his son, Yaakov, who, at the behest of their mother, disguised himself as his hirsute and strong brother Esav in order to obtain the blessing of the first-born. When we read the story it’s hard not to wonder at Yitzhak’s apparent inability to distinguish between his sons; even though his eyes were dim with age, and even though he suspected something was amiss because the voice didn’t sound like Esav, he nevertheless either believes that Yaakov is really Esav or he chooses to ignore his own disquiet and suspicions.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness,” which basically means that we can miss seeing things right in front of our eyes if we’re focused on something else. A famous example was a test wherein participants were asked to focus on the number of passes in a basketball game, and missed a guy in a gorilla suit walking out on the court. (See here.) Returning to our Torah portion, one wonders if Yitzhak couldn’t see what was right in front of his (admittedly dim) eyes because he was so engrossed in articulating and transmitting a spiritual patrimony that he wasn’t able to perceive which son was actually in front of him. This would not fit the technical definition of inattentional blindness in the psychological literature, but I’m using this idea more broadly and loosely, to capture a sense of our chronic inability as human beings to see things that we don’t want or are too distracted to see.

I imagine that every reader of this Torah commentary knows that renewed hostilities have broken out in Gaza over the past few days. Here, too, we find those who don’t, or can’t, see something important when their focus is elsewhere. Those who will reflexively condemn Israel for its attacks on Hamas don’t see the hundreds and hundreds of rockets that have fallen on Israel’s south in recent weeks and months. Conversely, those who see only Israel’s pain and need of security often don’t acknowledge the suffering of those Palestinians who had little say in the commencement of hostilities.

When we see only our own (and certainly, from Israel’s perspective, legitimate) grievances and claims, it’s hard to fully see the world in its awesome complexity, and even harder to see things from the perspective of others. We must see clearly that Israel needs support and defense, but that is not the only thing we might see. Our vision must be wide enough and our prayers expansive enough to encompass all those who suffer and fear during these dark and uncertain days. To do so is not to agree on particular policies or eventual outcomes, but rather to be more fully human, more as one who sees the world in need of both strict justice and bountiful mercy. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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