"We see things not as they are but as we are." Taken from Milton's poem Paradise Lost,this haunting aphorism offers us a penetrating look into human nature. None of us sees the world through untinted lenses. Even when we think we're being objective, our backgrounds, values and interests condition how we understand life.
Few tales demonstrate this better than the story of three construction workers employed to erect a religious institution. When asked, "What are you doing?" the first replied, "I'm laying bricks." The second said, "I'm making $10.50 per hour." The third reverently answered, "I'm building a shrine to God." Three men, three totally different perceptions of the same reality.
Our portion begins with God's promises of redemption to the Israelites, the promises we memorialize by drinking four cups of wine at seder. After a quick detour through Moses and Aaron's genealogy, the Torah recounts at length the 10 plagues God visited upon Egypt. The first was blood.
Those who've watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments have vivid images of how that plague might have unfolded. Moses lifts his staff over the Nile, then strikes the waters, turning them blood red. The fish and plants die, the stench rises and, for a week, there is no water fit to drink throughout Egypt.
Later interpretations indicate that it might not have occurred quite this way. Exodus Rabba, a compendium of midrashim, asserts that the Nile ran with blood only for the Egyptians, while drinkable water coursed through the Israelite settlements. In the 18th century, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Chasidism's founding teacher, offered an even more radical insight. He suggested that the waters that flowed to both the Egyptians and the Israelites were identical. The difference was only in how it was perceived.
The Hebrew word for blood is dam. The word for human, adam, differs by only one letter, an initial "Aleph." That same "Aleph" is the first letter of the divine name, E-l-o-h-i-m. By treating the Israelites as subhuman and denying God, Pharaoh had forgotten his essential humanity. When finally able, the Israelites received God's call to freedom as abundant, life-giving waters. The tyrannical Pharaoh could only perceive that same summons as deadly dark red, the same color as the Israelite blood that was shed when the Hebrew baby boys were thrown into the Nile.
Others Turn Their Heads
How often do we see this same dynamic unfold? What seems ordered and healthy to some is stodgy and stultifying to others. One person's overwhelming obstacle is another's opportunity. Some, like Pharaoh, look at the vulnerable and see them as easy prey. Others turn their heads sure that the unfortunate are reaping what they have sown. However, those who, like Moses, haven't forgotten their essential humanity see the image of God in the faces of those in need and seek to respond in life-giving ways.
Among the many different views of the afterlife, one asserts that God offers a luminous eternity to saint and sinner alike. The righteous see Heaven. The wicked perceive it as Hell.
Like Moses and Pharaoh, we too see things as we are. As 2011 dawns, maybe it's time we each took a more perceptive look.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]