The God Who Sees Me
Janine and I have an expression about a child who was raised in a dysfunctional family. We say he was raised by wolves. In the case of J.D. Vance, being raised by wolves would have been a step up. In his book Hillbilly Elegy, Vance describes his journey from nearly flunking out of high school to graduating Yale Law School. And, he gives primary credit for his success to his hillbilly grandparents, James Lee Vance and Bonnie Blanton, who he calls Mamaw and Papaw.
And, this is one of the stories he tells about them. Once, when JD’s uncle Jimmy was very little, the family went Christmas shopping. Mamaw and Papaw allowed Jimmy to roam and he began to play with a toy he found in a pharmacy. The pharmacist thought he was trying to steal it and he threw him out of the store. Mamaw and Papaw found Jimmy waiting outside the store in the cold looking downcast.
When the clerk explained that Jimmy was playing with an expensive toy, Papaw picked up the toy and said, “You mean, this toy?” and he smashed it on the ground. Utter chaos followed. Mamaw started grabbing random items off the shelves and throwing them all over the place. All the while, she is screaming to her husband, “Kick his blanking you know what!” And, then Papaw leans in to the clerk and says very ominously “If you say another word to my son, I’m going to break your neck.”
Well, this poor man was so shell shocked that all he could he do was apologize. And Mamaw and Papaw continued their Christmas shopping as if nothing had happened.
You wouldn’t think anything good could come from people like this. Yet, these are the people that JD Vance says were ‘the best thing that ever happened to me.’ When JD came home from school crying because he had never heard of multiplication and division, Papaw sat with him every day for two weeks until he mastered his tables. And, it was Mamaw who encouraged JD to go to law school.
If you or I were to meet Mamaw and Papaw on the street, we would not see in them what JD Vance saw. And, frankly, I doubt they would see us very kindly either. Psychologists have a name for this. They call it cognitive miserliness. It means that when we look at another person, we tend to see only a very narrow band of who they really are.
There is a lot of miserliness in the way we are looking at each other in America right now. In Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind, Haidt sketches out how liberals and conservatives too often see each other.
Here’s how conservatives look at liberals:
“Once upon a time America was a shinng beacon. Then liberals came along …They subverted American values and opposed God and faith every step of the way. Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and a gay lifestyle.”
Now, here’s how liberals look at conservatives. This is from Michael Feingold of the Village Voice:
“Republicans don’t believe in the imagination….mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster, who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.”
If we really accept these versions of each other, then we really have no choice but to battle to the death. But, that doesn’t sound like a very good formula for the future of democracy.
How did we get this way? How did we become such cognitive misers? It is one of the core insights of the Torah that cognitive miserliness is at the root of human conflict. And, it is one of the central purposes of the Torah to help us overcome it. And, that’s what today’s Torah reading is all about.
It’s a deceptively simple story. Sarah and Abraham are childless. So, Sarah offers her slave Hagar to Abraham. The idea was for Hagar to be a surrogate, just like in the Handmaid’s Tale.
But, things don’t work out that way. When Hagar gets pregnant, her attitude towards Sarah changes. Sarah senses it . She sees that Hagar has begun to see herself as Sarah’s superior. It drives Sarah crazy. She is humiliated.
So, she tortures Hagar and Hagar runs away. But, an angel persuades Hagar to return and promises her that she will give birth to a son who will become the leader of a great nation. And, when Hagar gives birth, she calls her son Yishmael—God hears—because God has heard her cry of distress and has responded.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Now Sarah gives birth, to Isaac. And, Sarah insists that Yishmael and Yitzchak cannot grow up together. Reluctantly, Abraham sends Hagar and Yishmael into the desert. Their water runs out and Hagar is sure that Yishmael is going to die. But, God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well of water. Yishmael lives.
The first thing to notice about this story is how it is not framed. This story could so easily have been framed as a story about injustice: the poor slave against a member of the powerful elite. Viewed this way, there is only one solution. Defeat the evil elite, and rescue the slave. But, that’s not what happens. The genius of this story is that it forces us to be sympathetic to Sarah as well as to Hagar.
And, the Torah is able to pull that off because it doesn’t ask: how can the good defeat the evil? Instead, it asks: Why are these people in so much pain? But, to ask that, you have to see the pain. And, for both Sarah and Hagar, what makes the pain especially unbearable is that nobody sees it.
Hagar is invisible because she is a slave. No wonder Hagar revels in Abraham’s attention. But, Sarah is also in pain. She is in pain because of her infertility. And, her husband Abraham is clueless. Instead of reassuring her of his love, he makes things worse by accepting her offer of Hagar. And, once Hagar gets pregnant, who is getting all the attention from Abraham? Hagar! And, Sarah is nobody.
There is no Hollywood ending to this story. But, everyone’s pain is eased a little bit. That’s because God sees the pain of both Sarah and Hagar. And, the well where God first appears to Hagar is named b’er la’chai ro’i/the well of the God who sees me. A well is a water source that is hard to see. What Hagar sees is that she is the well. She had living waters inside of her that nobody was seeing. But, God saw it.
This is the challenge this story confronts us with. How do we see like God sees? How do we see the person who is different from us/who disagrees with us profoundly as a source of living waters? At Herzl-Ner Tamid beginning this year, we are orienting ourselves around the Biblical injunction: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof/justice, justice you shall pursue!
What could be more simple? Do the right thing! Vanquish evil! But, it’s not what it appears. In Rabbinic law, if there is a unanimous verdict in a capital case, you can’t convict. Why? Because it’s assumed that if the verdict were so obvious, the judges haven’t looked hard enough to discover some possibility of innocence.
And, the rabbis have Biblical warrant. Abraham is singled out by God to be a model of justice for his descendants—laasot tzedakah u’mishpat. And, how does Abraham embody that? The first question Abraham asks of God is ‘oolai yesh chamishim tzadikim b’toch ha’ir/maybe there are fifty righteous people in the city/Look closer, God! Maybe there is some good here that we have overlooked. That’s justice!
Our Tradition is not interested in winning. It’s interested in human transformation. That’s why we are here today—not for a road map on how to fight the bad guys, but a road map for a better world. On Yom Kippur, we read the Book of Jonah. Jonah wanted the people of Nineveh punished. They’re bad! God wanted them changed.
God wants teshuvah/transformation. And for that to happen, not only do we need to see the imperfections in ourselves. We also have to be able to see the good in people we don’t like, people we disagree with profoundly.
But we are losing the ability to see this way. There is a growing tendency to treat all of our problems as if they are good vs. evil. The search for a bogeyman who embodies everything that’s wrong with our lives should make us very nervous—not only because it’s wrong, but because these things never end well for the Jews.
Today it’s the Mexicans who are the enemy. Tomorrow it’s Muslims. The next day it’s Republicans. The next day it’s rich people. The next day it’s poor people. When are we going to figure out that this is all bad?!
One of the scariest examples of scapegoating in the past election was the targeting of the ‘elite’. Let’s think about this. Who is the elite? Pick your poison. From the right “the elite” is a code word for the cultured, the university educated and the media. From the left, the elite is the 1% –Wall Street, the bankers, the wealthiest stratum of America. Guess what? Either way, the elite is a code word for the Jews.
The problem of income gap and poverty in America is not good vs. evil. It’s not caused by immigrants. And, it’s not caused by a conspiracy of the wealthy. It won’t help the poor if we round up all the wealthy and put them in camps. And, imagine if tomorrow we were to deport every undocumented worker in America. Who is going to rebuild Houston? These are complicated human problems. They’re not going to be solved by some primeval battle between good and evil.
Recently, I saw a letter from a respected rabbinic colleague on his decision to attend the March Against Racial Injustice in Washington, even though it’s on Yom Kippur. But, Mayim Bialik said:
“Anyone else think that’s absurd? “…it automatically excludes a people who historically have stood up for racial equality in enormous ways.”
To be fair, the March issued an apology, though they did not reschedule. Here is what their website says:
“The core leadership of the March for Racial Justice …celebrates the historical unity between African Americans and Americans of the Jewish faith. These two communities are natural partners, as each have a history of persecution and discrimination.”
But, this partnership is not what it used to be. And, it hasn’t been for a long time. I have a new friend, Mark Jones. Mark is a professional facilitator who is a partner with us in developing our civil discourse series. Mark is an African American. And, over the past several months we’ve had many deep conversations about all kinds of things, including race.
In the course of one conversation, I told Mark how excited I was when my father came back from the 1963 March on Washington and told me he had stood next to Wilt Chamberlin. And, I also told him how disappointed I was when in the 1970’s from the bus window I saw the name of the Apollo Theater in Harlem lit up only with the letters P-L-O.
Mark used a stronger word than ‘disappointed.’ He said, “You felt betrayed.” “Yes”, I said, “I felt betrayed”. And, I know I’m not the only one. And, no one wants to talk about it. One of the things I love about Mark is that he is not conflict avoidant. He doesn’t freak out when I describe my complicated feelings about what has happened to the friendship between the African American community and the Jewish community.
We Jews are not entirely blameless for the decline of that friendship. The relationship between Jews and blacks is very complex, and it needs conversation, not silence. And, the problem of race in America is complex, and it equally needs conversation. And, real conversation is always two way.
Of course, there is still racism in America. Black men and women are still in many ways the ‘hidden figures’ we saw in the movie by that name. We so often do not see them the way they deserve to be seen.
But, many of the inequalities of race in America are far more complicated than good vs. evil. And, we need to talk about that. And, it needs to be a conversation in which people can speak openly with each other without fear of name calling.
When I was a teenager, I remember thinking that Martin Luther King was passe. I read Malcom X and Eldridge Cleaver, and I thought I was so sophisticated and I knew so much more than my parents who were so naïve. And, it’s taken me fifty years to understand just what was so great about Dr. King’s vision and why it’s so important that we return to it.
In Martin Luther King, jr’s famous “I have a dream speech” he said as follows:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice….will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice…..
This is the language of transformation. But, the dream of transformation has been subverted by the language of polarization. In the vision of King we had ‘we’ll walk hand in hand.” Now we have intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that the various oppressions of society are all interrelated: xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism—they’re all cut out of the same cloth.
So, basically, all of the oppressors of the world are on one side and all of the oppressed are on the other side. The problem is that this is a party that we have not been invited to. It’s why Jewish people celebrating LG-BT Pride in Chicago were told not to display Star of David flags because the event was anti-Zionist and the flags made people feel unsafe.
It doesn’t matter that Israel is the most LG-BT-friendly country in the Middle East—and one of the best in the world. The logic goes something like this. “Palestinians are people of color. Israelis are white colonialist oppressors. The world is made up of only two types of people, good and evil. So, it’s impossible that Israel could be capable of any good. Therefore what appears to be good is really pinkwashing, a cynical ploy to distract the world’s attention from Israel’s oppressive policies”.
Three years ago, Tufts University Hillel invited the parents of Trayvon Martin to speak about gun violence. Martin is the teenager who was murdered in Florida by a white vigilante. Recently, a student-written guide to activist life at Tufts proclaimed that ‘students were outraged that Hillel, an organization that promotes a white supremacist state was bringing Trayvon’s parents to exploit black voices for their own pro-Israel agenda.”
My colleague who is going to the March in Washington believes we should overlook the fact that we have been excluded from the club of the oppressed. After all, we are not oppressed any more. And, the truly oppressed need our help.
But, we do the world no favor when we are complicit in this hijacking of the cause of justice. And, we don’t help the world by not sticking up for ourselves. On the contrary, the best thing we could do for social justice in America today is to initiate a genuinely inclusive conversation on what it means for Americans to pursue a just society together.
That conversation is absent. And, it’s long overdue. The more we allow this simplistic binary approach to justice to take root, the further away we get from justice. The most important thing we can do right now is to move the world away from the model of “life as a battle between good and evil”, and to move us back to Martin Luther King’s compassionate vision of human transformation.
A few weeks ago, NPR did a profile of Daryl Davis. Daryl Davis is a blues musician with an interesting hobby. For the past 30 years, Davis, a black man, has been befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Since Davis started talking with these members, 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.
Here is how Darryl describes his first Klan encounter: “I was playing music at the Silver Dollar Lounge and this white gentleman approached me and he says, “I really enjoy you all’s music.” I thanked him and he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
I said, “Well, where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play that kind of style?” He’s like, “Well, I don’t know.” I said, “He learned it from the same place I did. Black, blues, and boogie-woogie piano players.”
He said, “Oh, no! Jerry Lee invented that. And then he says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man?” I said, “How is that? At first he didn’t answer me, but finally he said, ” because I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”
I just burst out laughing because I thought he was pulling my leg. But, he pulls out his wallet and hands me his Klan card. And, now I’m not laughing. And now I’m wondering, why am I sitting with a Klansman?
But he was very friendly. He wanted me to call him anytime I returned to this bar with the band. The fact that a Klansman and a black person could sit at the same table and enjoy the same music, that was a seed planted. So, I decided to go around the country and sit down with Klan members to find out: How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?
I went in with knowledge. When they see that you know about their organization, they respect you. Initially, they feel that if you’re not white, you are inferior. I’ll give you an example.
This guy was an exalted cyclops sitting in my car in my passenger seat. He said to me, “we all know that all black people have within them a gene that makes them violent.” I said, “Wait a minute. I have never done a carjacking or a driveby, how do you explain that?” He said, “Your gene is latent. It hasn’t come out yet.”
I thought about it for a minute. Then I said, “Well, we all know that all white people have a gene that makes them a serial killer.” He says, “What do you mean?” And I said,”Well, name me three black serial killers.” He couldn’t do it.
I said, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson. All whites. I said, “Son, you are a serial killer.”
He says “Daryl, I’ve never killed anybody.” I said, “Your gene is latent. It hasn’t come out yet.” He goes, “Well, that’s stupid!” I said, “Yes, you’re right… but no more stupid than what you said. ”
Then he got very, very quiet and changed the subject. Five months later, based on that conversation he left the Klan. His robe was the first robe I ever got.
I have several reactions to this story. First of all, don’t try this at home. Daryl Davis is an unusual person. I don’t know how he did it. But, I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it. My guess is most white supremacists are incorrigible, And, it can be dangerous to get involved with them.
But, even though not all of us can be a Daryl Davis, there is a lot we can learn from him. What especially impressed me in the story of the Klansman in the bar was how the change began. It started very simply. He didn’t know black people could play like that. It surprised him. He saw in Daryl Davis more than he expected to see.
And, once he did, there was a human connection. And, everything else followed from that. Because, once the klansman could admit he had misjudged black people in one area, well, maybe he was wrong about other things, too.
The second thing that struck me was how important it was that Davis read up on the literature of the klan. In other words, Davis paid attention to these people. He saw them. And, strange as it may seem, for a klansman, even if the person who sees you is black, it makes you feel good.
This is the power of seeing each other more fully. This is the power of overcoming our cognitive miserliness. We all see incompletely. And, because our vision is narrow, we cause pain, often without realizing it. That’s what happened to Sarah. That’s what happened to Hagar. And, what I’d like to suggest is that in the coming year, we shift the question we are asking in the direction of the perspective of the Bible. Instead of asking “how can we defeat the bad guys?” let’s rather ask: How can we take away the pain?
There is a lot of anger in the country right now. But, we need less outrage, more wisdom if we really want things to change. If our goal is not to win, but to transform the world for the better, changing the way we see each other and changing the way we speak to each other is our best hope for success.
As a society, our very vision of how to do social justice is seriously broken. It’s tainted. It’s tainted by lazy thinking. It’s tainted by narrow mindedness. And, it’s tainted by hate. But, as Americans and as Jews, we have a unique opportunity to change that by shifting the paradigm from polarization to transformation.
If we can do that, we can create a very different world.
- It would be a world in which both Sarah and Hagar deserve our sympathy.
- It would be a world in which JD Vance’s grandparents Mamaw and Papaw are not
cardboard stereotypes, but real people with good in them as well as imperfection.
- It would be world in which we see beyond categories and look at the whole person.
- It would be a world in which our goal is not victory, but relationship, human connection and love.
May we move the world closer in that direction this year.
May this be a year in which we recover the vision of Dr. King.
And, may we create a world in which we reject the false choice between red and blue, and seek, instead, the purple mountain majesty which has always been America’s glory.