Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Shemot

Open Eyes, and an Open Heart

I was always taught of the advantage of simplicity in language. My favorite author during my adolescence was Ernest Hemingway, and I remember reading comments that he made criticizing those who used multi-syllable words when shorter words would suffice.

Then, I went to graduate school in psychology and learned quite the opposite lesson. There I learned that if one could invent a word with multiple syllables to describe a simple phenomenon, he could gain credibility as an expert, even without real expertise.

Take, for example, a word with seven syllables: compartmentalization. Sounds impressive, but what does it mean? The dictionary that I consulted offers two meanings. One, “the act of distributing things into classes or categories of the same type.” A simple definition, but one having nothing to do with psychology.

The second dictionary definition that I discovered is “a mild state of dissociation.” Of course, to understand this definition, one must know that dissociation is a psychological process by which one splits two sets of perceptions or emotions into two separate inner worlds so that one does not affect the other.

All of us practice compartmentalization in this sense when we turn on the television, see some news events that are especially troubling to us and simply turn off the TV. Many of us did this recently when we witnessed the terrible forest fires in northern Israel and the horrible deaths of more than forty people. Watching the agony of the families whose loved ones were consumed by that fire was, for many of us, too much to bear. And so, perhaps after a minute or so, we turned off the TV to avoid being confronted with such human suffering.

This might be normal human behavior, and perhaps even necessary to avoid being constantly overwhelmed with negative emotions. But it is not the behavior of a true leader. And it was not the behavior of Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.

Rather, “…he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens…” (Exodus 2:11). Upon which Rashi comments, “He gave his eyes and his heart [in order] to be troubled about them”. Not only did he not avoid the scene of Jewish suffering, but he made sure that he beheld it (“his eyes”), and that it affected him emotionally (“his heart”).

Two very important, albeit very different, early 20th century commentators have much to say about our verse. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, in his sadly neglected commentary, writes, “He went out to his brethren. In later ages it must alas be said of many a son of Israel who had become great, that he went away from his brethren.” How well this former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth captures the notion of compartmentalization. It is the process by which we “look away” from upsetting scenes, rather than carefully looking “at them”.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the “Alter” (old man) of Kelm devotes the opening sermon of his remarkable collection of ethical discourses to our verse and to the criticism of the psychological process which we call “compartmentalization”.

The “Alter” points out that Moses was not content simply to hear about the suffering of his brothers while he sat comfortably in the palace. Rather he “went out” to see for himself. Moses wanted to witness the suffering of his brothers personally. Moses knew the secret of the power of direct sensory perception. Moses wanted to have the image of the burdens of slavery impressed upon his mind’s eye.

For the “Alter”, who was one of the earliest leaders of the Mussar movement, ethical behavior demands the use of imagery to arouse emotions and thus stimulate proper ethical behavior. Moses used his eyes to inspire his heart to motivate his actions. Vision, feeling, behavior: the three essential components of the truly ethical personality.

The lesson for all of us here is that to be a truly ethical person, one must invest in the effort of becoming familiar with the plight of others. One must avoid the temptation of “looking away”. From a psychological perspective, compartmentalization might be a healthy defense mechanism, necessary to avoid being flooded by images of evil. From an ethical perspective, on the other hand, compartmentalization is a seven-syllable word which, in simple terms, means avoidance of one’s responsibilities to another.

How instructive is the Hasidic tale of the Rabbi who met the village drunkard in the town square. The drunkard asked him, “Rabbi, do you love me?” To which the rabbi replied, “Of course I love you. I love all Jews!”

The drunkard then responded, “So tell me then, Rabbi. What hurts me?” The rabbi had no answer, and so the drunkard exclaimed, “If you truly loved me, you would know what hurts me.”

To know what hurts, we must be sure to open our eyes and hearts to see and feel the pain.