Learning To SEE
Parashah Re'eh 5780
Good morning. Three-quarters of the way into our parashah it says, “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open, yes, open your hand and lend, lend him sufficient for whatever he needs. Give, give readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the LORD your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open, open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”
There is also a line from our Haftorah today that goes, “You shall be established through Tzedakah – through righteousness. (Isa 54:14)” Our sages say that the Torah set aside a special blessing for people who perform the commandment of being charitable. Kabbalists say that he who donates to charity in our world causes acts of righteousness to be performed in the Celestial Regions. And medieval Jewish Rabbi and Torah commentator Rabbeinu Bahya said that as we do tzedakah and give charity, we spread around the attribute of Mercy and can see in those efforts the reflections of the blessings received. Such a one may be compared to the sun which enables the moon to at least shine with reflected light. One who dispenses charity is as if illuminating the eyes of the poor when the latter receives this blessing.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. I spoke about feeding the hungry two weeks ago and you’re saying to yourself, here he goes again.
Well, sort of but not really.
Indulge me for a moment and let me tell you what I learned this past week at Hope Clinic. I learned to Re’eh, I learned to see. Let me explain.
Moshe used the term in telling B’nai Yisrael to visualize themselves in the near future, as they cross the Jordan and establish themselves in Eretz Yisrael, with the choice of blessing or curse. He outlined these paths for them, the path of blessing and following the mitzvot, the path which includes caring for those in need, and the path of curse and abandoning the mitzvot.
Now, instead of looking forward, events of this past week have enabled me to look backward and SEE myself in new ways. I’m hoping that some of what I’ve experienced will help you to do the same.
One day this past week, I handed out boxes of fresh vegetables to people in need. On another day, I delivered bags of groceries to people who are home bound and also in need. Now I know that the food has been a blessing to those receiving it because many have told me so. And like Rabbeinu Bahya suggested, I’ve seen the illumination in their eyes as they take the groceries and profusely thank us. However, the best part of my volunteer efforts with Hope Clinic has been the blessings that have come to me and what I’m learning about myself. I’m learning to SEE people, to really SEE them as my kinsmen, as fellow human beings deserving of respect and dignity due the Divine within each of us. Black, brown, or white. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Atheist. Educated or uneducated. Healthy or not. Rich or poor. We are all B'tselem Elohim, in the image of God, and bearers of the divine.
So for whatever God’s reasons as I spoke about 2 weeks ago, I was led to volunteer at Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti and what I’m finding is that the clientele being served by Hope are making me realize how much of a hard heart and closed hand I really had. Now wait. You all know me and I doubt you’d describe me as hard-hearted and tight-fisted but what I’m realizing is that I, like most everyone else, have prejudices. I can be judgmental. I am a product of my Western, middle-class, Jewish, suburban upbringing and my tendency has therefore not been to befriend or trust groups of people I didn’t grow up with, especially Arabs and especially Muslim Arabs. Well as it turns out, now I’m giving them food and talking to them, getting to know them a little bit more with each visit. They are just like me and my family. And, it’s been especially interesting on occasions when I didn’t have a hat, and with kippah on they’ve been even more talkative with me. I’ve had a few greet me with “Shalom” and “Ma shlomcha.” I had one Arab man start rattling off Modern Hebrew at me faster than I can speak English. After clearing up my lack of fluency, we chatted about how he grew up here but has traveled throughout the Middle East and just has a knack for picking up languages. And there was a young Muslim woman in a hijab, who gave her name as Miryam Malakhshahdi. She explained to my co-volunteer that her last name was a name for God in Arabic. I quickly realized it was an Arabic conjunction of King, Melech, and Almighty, from El Shaddai which we translate as Almighty God. So I questioningly said, “Almighty King?” To which she nodded and smiled and asked how I knew. We chatted for a few minutes and it sounds like she has a nice family but they are struggling financially with her husband having lost his job due to the pandemic.
I didn’t think that I had a hard heart but looking back, before this volunteer work, I never would have placed myself so vulnerably close, and with my kippah in full display.
Let me tell you another story.
As I said, I delivered groceries to homebound people this week and for most of them it was absolutely obvious why they needed that home delivery and I was probably as touched and grateful for the opportunity to bring them food as they were to receive it. However, for one house to which I was dispatched, I questioned why they were getting a home delivery and the paperwork I’m given for each address didn’t give any clues. As I followed the directions to the house, it became obvious that I was in a more well-to-do neighborhood and when I got to the house there was a Corvette and a Buick in the driveway. The instructions that I had said to leave the leave the groceries on the porch and to knock on the door and then leave. My overwhelming feeling was what on Earth does this person need a home delivery for? I was almost mad about it. That she had wasted our time and taken a slot from someone else who could have real needs. Indignantly, I followed the instructions and left the groceries on the porch but drove away griping to my empty car.
I then followed the instructions to the next house in a completely different subdivision and which turned out to also be a more wealthy subdivision. Again in my head questioning why I was bringing groceries to someone in this neighborhood, I walked up to the door, put the groceries on the porch and knocked on the door and unlike last time, waited as my instructions told me. This time I saw a man through the sidelight window rolling up to the door in his wheelchair. He was a quadriplegic. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. We don't know everybody’s stories. I had no reason to make the assumptions that I did about the person in the wealthy house. I was unjustly, judgmental. My hand was tightly shut and this realization cause my fist to spring open. That first woman could have been elderly, or differently-abled as I’m told by Rosemary that’s the term I should use. There could be any number of reasons why she was not able to go out and to get groceries. What we don't know we just don't know and we don't have any right to make judgments on people.
And just to drive this point home, my last stop for the day another unique experience. As I followed the instructions to the very nicely maintained, decent-sized home in Saline, I noticed chalk writing in giant print on the driveway. It said, “Do not flaunt your privileges here. On this property you are required to wear a mask.” Well, okay I thought. That is our standard practice for deliveries so before exiting my car I masked up. As I approached the house with two bags of groceries, I saw the sign on the door and several more in the windows, all of which said things like “mask-wearing is mandatory” and “ring the bell then step back 10 feet.” So, I placed the groceries down, rang the bell and backed up. A couple minutes later a perfectly healthy and able-bodied appearing woman in her 50’s or 60’s came to the window near the door and looked out. I loudly told her I was from Hope with her groceries and pointed to where I had left them in front of her door. She couldn’t hear me or didn’t understand so I stepped forward and lifted up a bag for her to see. She smiled, clasped her hands together and bowed slightly mouthing thank you, and then pointed to a plastic lawn chair next to the door saying to me to please put the groceries on the chair. Okay, so I did. Then looking up I noticed another sign in the window. This one said that she is immuno-compromised. That explained everything including why she couldn’t go out to get groceries. In fact, she watched me from her window get back in my car and wouldn’t come out until I was back on the street and pulling away.
Perhaps that was the issue at the corvette house. Who knows. The point is that I was being taught a lesson, a lesson that we all already know but which we could all do a better job with. Sure we’re told from an early age not to be prejudiced or judgmental. I know I was taught that. But here I was being confronted by my own failings. I saw that corvette and nice-looking house and shut my hand.
I am discriminatory and prejudiced. I have trust issues with certain types of people and I am judgmental.
Yeshua says in Matthew 7, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)”
And James wrote, “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-4)”
I guess what I’m trying to share is that while loving our neighbor is incredibly important, especially those in need, we must do so with the right heart and the right mind. We need to SEE people with God’s eyes. We need to love them with God’s heart.
I can’t change the world. But I can change myself, with God’s help. And by sharing my journey, maybe I’ll have some impact on others. So, during this upcoming season of Teshuvah, I pray that everyone, myself included, has the courage to look in the mirror, to examine our innermost curses, to turn to Hashem with open hands and softened hearts, and ask for God’s help in returning to the path of blessing.