Meditation on the Face of Your Neighbor

Find your neighbor. Not the person you came in with–someone else.

Turn and look at your neighbor’s face. Not into their eyes, not yet. Don’t smile, or nod, or perform any of the gestures we normally use to reassure each other and get past the nervousness of face-to-face contact. Just live with the nervousness. Pay attention to it. Look at your neighbor. Examine their features. They are doing the same with you right now, but that isn’t important. Just look.

To begin with, study your neighbor’s forehead–its contours, the curvature of the cranium sweeping upward to form a snug resting place for the brain. It’s a shape that’s so universally human and yet so unique to this individual person. Study its lines of care and laughter. This is where God placed a mark on Cain, to settle his fear that in his wanderings he would be recognized and executed for a murderer. Actually, we are all born with that mark–a sign written in blazing letters spelling out the primal commandment: “Do not murder.” Cain’s tragedy was that he wasn’t able to recognize that mark until it was too late. Let your eyes wander over the face of your neighbor. Search for that mark, the word of God, written to you on your neighbor’s face.

Take your time, but once you’ve had time to really take in the face of your neighbor, close your eyes for a moment and just hold the image of that face in your mind. See it floating there before you in all its silent expressiveness and vulnerability. Take a moment to contemplate the riddle of the human face, so perfectly contained in this one here before you–that the face is both a window and a mask. It expresses and at the same time conceals. Your neighbor’s face speaks eloquently of all they have ever seen and done, all the joy and the anguish, all the fear and the pleasure. And yet, at the same time, it conceals their essential being, marking the boundary between you and an inward experience, infinitely vast, to which you have no access, sealed off from you by the boundary of the face which says, “This far and no further.”

Open your eyes now and for the first time, or as if for the first time, look into the eyes of your neighbor. Take a moment now, both of you, to look into each other’s eyes. Let your face respond naturally. Take note of this experience. What passes between you, from one person to the other, through the eyes? The eyes have been described as a window into the soul. For some this window seems transparent. For some it seems nearly opaque. Right now, try to pay attention to what you see through the windows of your neighbor’s eyes. No matter how clearly you see, it is always across a distance, as though a great depth separated you, though you are standing just a few feet apart. This fundamental distance is not wrong or unnatural. It is simply the boundary marker that marks the separation between the I and the you, the self and the other. One of the most profound laws in the Torah is not to move the boundary markers placed by our ancestors. This is the beginning of ethics.

Reach across that boundary now with your hand. Take the hand of your neighbor in your own. Still you remain here on this side, your neighbor on the other. Through this gesture of clasping hands you are able to make contact here in the shared space between you. Reach out now with your other hand and take the hand of another, and that person to the hand of another, and so on until we are all connected. Here we all are, together.

Hardened Hearts- Parashat Vaera

We had a discussion in class a while ago about the section in Exodus (parashat Vaera) where G-d tells Moses that he “will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply my signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This is a difficult passage that has been challenging rabbis for centuries, and the Rambam’s explanation in the Mishneh Torah–that habitual evil left unchecked for too long can eventually rule out even the possibility of repentance–seems no so much to resolve the issue as to focus and intensify it. To put it bluntly, is it possible that in this instance G-d was willing and able to suspend the free will of a human being, even a habitually wicked one, to make a point? And if it were possible in this instance, then why not others, also? Does this passage not call into question the very meaning of free will in the shadow of a transcendent G-d?

We would all like to believe that we are ultimately free to choose between good and evil. To do otherwise would be to take an ironic stance toward our own moral commitments. And yet, those of us who strive to resist the deceptive attractions of moral irony must find some answer to its claims, particularly because they seem so often to come from the mouth of experience and worldly knowledge. As Emmanuel Levinas wrote in the introduction to Totality and Infinity, “Everyone will agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are duped by morality.”

I’m not sure whether I can answer the challenge posed by the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, but some thoughts did occur to me today which seemed to help put the question in perspective. As far as I can see, the theological possibility of free will does not necessarily exclude the psychological observation that peoples’ behavior tends to be influenced by their environment. If what we mean by free will is some sacrosanct, inviolable thing, utterly insulated from its surroundings, then it’s hard to even imagine such a thing existing, or having any effect on the world if it did. Doesn’t a great deal of our behavior toward others express a certain fundamental assumption that what we say or do may have an effect on how they think, or feel, or at least behave? How else is an argument, or a threat, or a word of comfort supposed to work?

In order to make a difference in the world around you, you have to be open to being changed in return. This is true with regard to our fellow human beings, and it is true of our relationship with God. If we believe that God has an active role in creation (and this is a belief I find strongly persuasive), then we have to at least entertain the possibility that the way we think and feel has been strongly influenced by the ongoing conversation with the Eternal that has been at play in the events of our lives.

Where then does this leave Pharaoh? Raised in a society that treats him like a god, surrounded by sycophantic admirers and steeped in a culture that sees itself as the pinnacle of human civilization, it is not hard to imagine the kind of egocentric character that might be formed by such a biography. And into the middle of this carefully circumscribed world strides Moses, the scruffy, bearded, sun-baked representative of an enslaved people and its unknown god. There was little in the Egyptian king’s life that could have prepared him for this radical challenge to his smug self-regard.

In a biblical world, in which God is always seen to be lurking behind the wings, breathing the breath of a transcendent outside into the otherwise airtight box of history, is it so difficult to detect in these circumstances of Pharaoh’s life the means by which God “hardened his heart?” When weighed against the calcified accumulation of historical necessity, what can be the significance of “free will,” of the inward exception that exempts itself from the prerogatives of the past? It is precisely this conflict, and its surprising conclusion, that lie at the heart of the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. For Moses himself, though not to as great a degree as Pharaoh, had tasted what the most sophisticated civilization in the world had to offer, but gave it all up in reaction to the injustice he saw taking place in front of him. If the meaning of free will is to be found anywhere in this story, I think it is in the fact that this decisive moment in Moses’s life, this moment of uncontrollable rage at the mistreatment of one human being by another, happened long before he is likely to have even heard of the God of Israel. Perhaps this is what Rashi is trying to tell us– that the meaning of free will in a God-haunted universe is that the decisive encounter with God will only happen-whether we are Pharaoh or Moses–once our choices have already been made.

Dag Gadol

I’ve always had a soft spot for the book of Jonah because he’s such a terrible jerk and yet completely against his will ends up doing more actual good in the world than most of the other, more well-intentioned prophets put together. True, it’s not as if any of the prophets would necessarily have chosen their role in life if given the option–even Moses protests strenuously before assenting to serve as God’s representative to the rebellious and “stiff-necked” people Yisrael, and complains every step of the way from the Sea of Reeds to the promised land. Indeed, it’s this quality of the Jewish understanding of prophecy that serves to reinforce over and over again what Emmanuel Levinas calls the “transcendent” quality of religion–the sense that the ethical mission, the sense of responsibility for the other than serves as the beating heart of every truly inspired religious point of view is something imposed on us from without and, as it were, against our will.

Jonah, however, is something else entirely. I mean, what can you say about a guy who objects to God’s decision to send him to Nineveh precisely on the grounds that the mission might succeed and result in the Ninevites repenting and escaping destruction? You have to get up pretty early in the day to achieve that level of supreme douchebaggery. And yet I can’t help but wonder if that reluctance, the crazy degree to which God had to send him through the wringer to get him to the place he was supposed to be and to do what needed to be done, wasn’t somehow necessary to the success of the whole undertaking after all. Could it be that the king of Nineveh, a city admittedly so steeped in wickedness that God was about to pull a second “Sodom and Gomorrah” on the place, could not have been persuaded of the necessity of repentance by anything less than the spooky intensity of a man who’s just been dragged half-way across the world, against his will, inside a fish? Surely at the very least the state of the messenger would serve as a potent indicator that this God meant Serious Business.

The way I see it, in this world, at this time, we’re all Jonahs to one degree or another. Steeped in a political climate in which compromise and sympathy for another’s position are looked upon more often than not as the most grave sort of weakness, we would rather rave and thrash against the hand of God himself than show the slightest concern or consideration for those we regard as “them.” Given how “stiff-necked” humanity has been for as long as anyone can remember, and how grave the various crises we are faced with today, isn’t it just a little comforting to imagine that God might occasionally be willing to deal with our own uncompromising stubbornness with the same divine lack of patience he showed Jonah? May we all have the enlightenment and presence of mind to learn the lesson the first time around, but barring that, may we be fortunate enough that God continues beating us over the head if need be until we get the picture. I mean, what are a few bruises compared to the possibility of going through life with our eyes closed to the moral reality of the people around us?