Choosing What We See

Scene One: You’ve come off the highway and are stuck at the traffic light at the end of the off-ramp when a homeless man carrying a bucket of filthy water and a wiper tries to “wash” your windshield, hustling you for a buck. You silently fume at the pushiness of the hustle, feeling bad if you don’t give him a dollar, but also feeling guilty that you’re probably feeding an addiction. You toss him some money without making eye contact and speed off, agitated, but maybe not knowing entirely why.

Scene Two: You’re at the same stoplight

Instead of seeing him as an annoyance, you see him as a person again, forgetting to take a different exit, and there he is. Same homeless man, same bucket, same unwanted intrusion into your personal zone, but this time, something is different—and it’s you. This time, instead of seeing him as an annoyance, you see him as a person. You notice his suffering. You wonder how he makes it out there on the street, in the cold, in the rain, for a few dollars. You think—well, at least, he’s not just begging; he’s trying to provide a service. You wonder what happened, what’s his story? PTSD vet? Tragic childhood? The economy?

You start to realize how vulnerable and how fortunate you are—that but for the grace of G‑d go you, and you wonder how you would fare if life had thrown you a bunch of curveballs. But chances are the more vulnerable you feel, the more you acknowledge that the capriciousness of life could pull the rug out from you at any moment. And the more you say to yourself, “You know, I could end up on the street someday just like this guy,” the more uneasy you become.

And then you have a choice. To quell that anxiety, you will need to go back to objectifying that man. He’s not every man nor is he any man; he’s not even a man at all! He’s a filthy old beggar who’s annoying you. He’s a thing. And in so doing, you have just successfully hardened your heart. While this may bring you temporary relief, it will never bring you joy or happiness, as it does nothing to assuage your existential fears.

In the Torah portion Yitro, where we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, we were 50 days out of Egypt. Most of you know the story that before the Exodus, every time Pharaoh thought of letting the Jewish people go, he “hardened his heart” until eventually, he had no choice, and G‑d “hardened his heart.” What does that mean? A hardened heart is a disconnected heart, employing whatever mental tactic it needs in order not to see reality. Once you dehumanize a person or a nation, you can rationalize and justify just about anything.

Scene Three: You’re at the stoplight with the homeless man. This time, instead of hardening your heart, you stay open to the emerging sense of compassion, and your heart softens. You feel good because you feel alive, connected and present. And now you meet that moment of opportunity with choices. Maybe this time, you offer him a sandwich or you hand him the dollar with a sincere smile.

What’s in a Name?

The Jewish people had been slaves for generations. The open miracles of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea were completely outside of their experience. In fact, their whole understanding of reality was turned on its head, and from what the Jewish people had just experienced from the plagues to the splitting of the sea, the very laws of nature were up for grabs. Furthermore, it is said that when the Jews stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, they “saw” thunder and “heard” lighting.

And then, in the only instance of mass revelation in history, every man, woman and child directly heard the voice of G‑d. The first word of the First Commandment is the word: Anochi, which is an Egyptian word, appearing very rarely in Scripture. It is not the way G‑d introduced Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush when we read for the first time the phrase, “I am that I am.” Nor did G‑d use this Egyptian word when he communicated with Abraham or the other Jewish patriarchs. So what could this seeming anomaly tell us?

It tells us that G‑d gets us, and that He meets us where we are. In choosing that first word to be in a language that was familiar, it was comforting. It softened the introduction, so to speak; it was an act of compassion and connection.

Before we were redeemed from Egypt, we were at the next-to-lowest level of spirituality (the 49th level). Had we remained in Egypt any longer, we would have descended to the 50th level—a level beyond redemption. Even though we correspondingly ascended 49 levels of holiness, by the time we arrived at Sinai, we were still not perfect, which would have been the 50th level. G‑d nevertheless saw us in our totality, in all of our human imperfection, and G‑d met us where we were: Anochi. With this one word, G‑d joined with us and in a sense our “worldview” at the time, and thus created the bond of connection.

G‑d’s Compassion

G‑d’s compassion was not based on our “deserving” it. And that is the deep reality of compassion: It is not earned; rather, it is given. It is from this place, then, that we were redeemed. It is from this place that the rest of the commandments flowed. In fact, it is from this place that all of Torah flows.

So, in getting back to our homeless windshield washer, it is not that the homeless man “deserves” our compassion, but that the Divine in us regards him as intrinsically “worthy” of compassion. And so are we all—simply because we are.

From the beginning, we were created

We were created as flawed and imperfect human beings as flawed and imperfect human beings. In fact, the story goes that “Truth” and “Mercy” were arguing when G‑d was contemplating creating man, and as a result, “Truth” was cast down to the ground. Since G‑d chose to create us as imperfect beings, we would not be able to withstand the strict scrutiny of “Truth,” and so we need the attribute of “Mercy” in order to survive.

On the other hand, the attribute of mercy is not without boundaries, limits and common sense. An unbalanced or un-tempered compassion can create harm; thus, it is not compassionate. For example, in the case of the homeless man, it would not be compassionate to enable addiction, nor would it be common sense to bring him home to live with you. And while G‑d starts the Ten Commandments from the place of compassion, the commandments themselves are about those boundaries and limits that will best nurture connection with G‑d and each other.

But compassion is a good place to start. So the next time you encounter a flawed human being (like everyone, including yourself), don’t immediately harden your heart. Don’t default into the place of disconnection and objectification where you are right (and they are wrong), you are better (and they are worse), you are worthy (and they are not). Try compassion as your first response, and then—from that place—you’ll meet that moment of opportunity with good choices, and you will know what is the right thing to do.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down a situation where you have been unfairly judged and assumptions were made about you without knowing or understanding your situation. How did it make you feel? What do you wish had been said or done instead?
  2. Now write down a situation where you have misjudged another and lacked compassion because you felt it was undeserved. If you had been able to be more compassionate with this person, how do you think it would have changed the outcome?
  3. Put together a list of five ways you can practically implement being more compassionate, both to yourself and to others. Make sure to write both what you plan to do and in which situation so there is accountability. Date this and come back in a few weeks, and reflect how that compassion has changed how you feel about yourself and the situation.