Thursday, 13 Nov 2014

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen

Lift Up Your Eyes

Imagine this – you have just stepped out of a shop.  It is getting late and dark.  You hear shouting to your left and see a man running in your direction.  He is clutching a handbag in his right hand and a woman is running after him. What would you do?  Would you try and stop the man – maybe trip him up?  Would you call the police and give his details?  Maybe you would tell the security guard of the shop that the man just took that lady’s bag.

You should not act so quickly.  What you have not seen is that there was a third person whom both the man and the woman are pursuing.  This first man was the perpetrator who had tried to grab the woman’s purse.  This small fact enables us to see the full picture and we realise that the event was completely different to what we imagined.  The people in pursuit are married and are trying to apprehend the criminal – they are the victims.  This example was often used in our criminal law class at law school except in that version the man who was initially running was black.  The example tested our stereotypes and perceptions and forced us to understand the danger of discrimination.  We were also required to assess what the actual evidence was before us and not to be blindsided by circumstantial evidence.

My initial, and long-held, impression of the story of Rebecca meeting Isaac for the first time (in this week’s parashah – Genesis 24) suffered from my lack of perception and my love of a good old fashioned romance.  We see Isaac wandering in the field at night.  The Jewish Publication Society translates verse 63 as, ‘Going out toward evening to stroll in the field, Isaac looked up and saw – camels coming!’  His future wife was in this approaching party.  The next two verses state, ‘And Rebecca looked up: seeing Isaac, she got off the camel and said to the slave: “Who is this man striding in the field coming to meet us?” “He is my master”, said the slave.   Taking a veil, she covered herself.’  What a love story right?  Isaac was strolling in the field, at one with nature.  He strides towards Rebecca who promptly falls off her camel.  Yes, the Hebrew is quite clear here – it’s not that Rebecca daintily got off the camel as this translation suggests.  No, she fell straight off after seeing this beautifully mysterious man before her.  With a quivering voice she asks – who is this man?  Isaac’s slave explains it is her future husband. It is love at first sight and the rest is history.

Not so fast.

We studied this text in detail in our class last year with Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh.  He asked us to look closely at the word – ha-la-zeh – in verse 65.  Its plain meaning is ‘this’ and it comes in the verse when Rebecca asks – ‘who is this man?’  When you look up this word in the dictionary it becomes clear that this word is a rare one and implies a feeling of disdain and contempt.  In fact the only other occurrence of the word in Torah is of Joseph when his jealous brothers who are busy plotting against him say, ‘behold this dreamer is coming’.  The question in our text is not, ‘who is this [gorgeous] man [whom I cannot take my eyes off]?’ but rather, ‘who is this [strange, scary] man? [Please tell me it’s not who I think it is!]’  Knowing the facts about this small word changes the narrative completely. We can look further at the narrative.  Isaac was not simply strolling in the field.  He was, according to the dictionary’s entry for this verb (soo-ach) – meditating, communing, speaking or musing.  It appears Isaac was talking to himself (or to God) in the middle of a field – it must have been an unusual sight.  No wonder Rebecca fell off her camel when greeted with the reality of her husband-to-be. 

The narrative here has a sub-text which brings the attuned reader into the joke – it was far from love at first sight.  Appearance and vision are themes of this chapter.  We see Rebecca being described as ‘exceedingly beautiful’.  The poetic phrase ‘lift up your eyes’ is used throughout this chapter.  It could be said that the text is warning us of the dangers of appearance – of circumstantial evidence.  It is encouraging us to look beyond the obvious so that we see the complex layers before us in any given situation.  Things are almost never one-dimensional. 

There are many rabbinic texts which also talk about the danger of circumstantial evidence – of seeing something and assuming the worst without knowing all the facts.  Maimonides posits the following case (Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Negative Commandments, 290) – a person (A) was pursing another (B) with the intent to kill and B escapes to a house, with A following behind.  We enter the house after them and find B with knife wounds to his chest and A standing over him with a knife.  Both are covered in blood.  In this case the Sanhedrin (the rabbinic court) cannot find A liable for capital punishment as there are no direct witnesses.  Maimonides concludes, ‘it is better and more desirable that a thousand guilty persons go free than that a single innocent person be put to death’.

From stories of handbag snatching, supposed love at first sight, and a gory murder, we see the vital importance of understanding that there is usually never one truth or a simple answer concerning the dangers of unconscious as well as conscious discrimination. 

We need to lift up our eyes and consider what is truly before us, admitting the stereotyping to which we are prone as well as our lack of knowledge.  Self-scrutiny leads to self-knowledge, and self-knowledge leads to self-awareness. Once we have accepted our own limitations we may begin to acknowledge the subtleties around us and strive for a world free from snap judgments and discrimination.

Robyn Ashworth-Steen

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.