Seeing the Good
There’s a true story told by Jacques Lusseyran, a member of the French Resistance during World War II who was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. While there, he was put in Prison block 57, a building meant to hold no more than 400 men, but which housed over a thousand men, literally pressed together with no room even to lie down. It was, of course, a living nightmare—daily beatings, brutal slave labor, and no place even to sleep with decency. Even so, explains Lusseyran, there was one old man in block 57 who managed to move around—all the men instinctively gave him a tiny bit of space, in some kind of gesture of reverence. The old man’s name was Jeremy, but his nickname was ‘Socrates,’ because somehow whenever he opened his mouth, the simplest most beautiful words and stories of wisdom emerged. Unlike all the other men, who often screamed and fought and cried out in anguish, this Jeremy, this ‘Socrates’ was always peaceful. Lusseyran writes, “He observed things of the spirit with his eyes, as doctors observe microbes through their microscopes. He made no distinction.” In other words, matters of spirit were patently obvious for him. He was not a remarkable man, a simple welder from a small village in France. But there was something about his simple wisdom, “Each time he appeared, “ wrote Lusseyran, “the air became breathable.” What made Jeremy so remarkable was that he could walk about the camp, and see all the misery that everyone else beheld, and somehow Jeremy did not blink. When all the other men were stricken with horror and terror and wanted to shut their eyes, Jeremy was not afraid to see.
Lusseyran relates one teaching in particular of Jeremy’s that struck him: “For one who knows how to see,” Jeremy said, “things [here] are just as they always are.” “At first I did not understand,” wrote Lusseyran, “I even felt something quite close to indignation. What? Buchenwald like ordinary life? Impossible. All of these crazed, hideous men, the howling menace of death, these enemies everywhere, among the S.S., among the prisoners themselves, this wedge of hill pushed up against the sky, thick with smoke…the electric fences, all of this was just as usual! I remember that I could not accept this. It had to be worse…Until finally Jeremy enabled me to see…”[i]
The Torah tells us the famous story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. God calls to Abraham and says ‘Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on one of the mountains that I will show you.’ Abraham rises early in the morning, takes his wood and knife and fire and his son on a three-day’s journey, climbs the mountain, lifts the knife, and almost sacrifices his son were it not for a heavenly voice that calls out to forbid him from harming the child. We have long wondered about the brutal betrayal that this story seems to pose to us: how could Abraham even think to heed God’s command—even if it is a test—and show any kind of willingness to slay his own child? What kind of a God, we wonder, would demand this kind of willingness as a test of faith and loyalty?
This story is truly a horrifying one. In fact, it’s there, in the Torah, to horrify us, to shake us to our core, to question our fundamental beliefs about life, about God. We’re supposed to struggle so profoundly with this story until finally we come to realize the nature of the test: it’s not Abraham alone who is tested, it is each of us who are tested! And here’s the test: like Jeremy, like those inmates at Buchenwald, can we look at our worst possible nightmare and not blink? Can we find the peace within ourselves so deeply that we are not afraid to see?...
On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, before we read the Binding of Isaac, we read the story of Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and her son Yishma’el (Abraham’s first-born son). The story goes that when Isaac was born, Sarah demanded that Hagar and Yishmael be banished from their household. With great trepidation, and yet with God’s directive, Abraham sends Hagar away with her son in to the desert. After wandering for days in the desert, mother and child run out of water and out of hope. Hagar lays her parched child down to die, and she goes off and weeps in utter despair. But then, a heavenly voice calls out to Hagar, “Mah Lach Hagar?” “What’s with you Hagar?” God has heard the cry of the child. Lift him, for he will be a great nation. And God ‘unclosed [Hagar’s] eyes’ and behold there was a well right there, and she hadn’t even noticed it before! Isn’t that amazing? She was so despairing, she didn’t even notice, as she placed her child down to die of thirst, that a well was right there in front of them! Despair closed her eyes. Despair can do that to all of us—it can close our eyes and utterly blind us to the life-giving waters that we need.
It was with this insight in mind, that Rashi and the Bekhor Shor, two great medieval commentators, pointed out something brilliant in that story of the Binding of Isaac. If you look carefully at the Hebrew of God’s command to Abraham about his son, it says “v’Ha’aleyhu Le’olah,” which literally means, “bring him up there for an elevating.” In other words, God never literally says ‘slaughter him,’ God just says ‘bring him up for the offering.’ But the expression was vague enough to be totally unclear to Abraham. Trapped in the uncertainty of God’s command, he sets out with his son and the accoutrements for the unthinkable—for child sacrifice—but look what Abraham says to Isaac when Isaac innocently asks him, “Father, I see the fire and the wood, but where is the ram for the offering?’ Abraham says “Elokim Yir’eh lo haSeh le’olah, bni.” “God will show us the ram for the offering, my son.” In other words, ‘we will see a ram, my son, mark my words.’ Abraham knew all along that God would not kill his child. Unlike Hagar, who closed her eyes in despair, Abraham never closed his eyes. He never blinked. As much as it looked like the unthinkable, the death of his child, was becoming imminent, Abraham was not afraid to see…
Reb Meir was a Hasid of Reb Mordechai of Lechovitch. He was also the occasional business partner of Reb Gershon, who was a devout Misnaged—he hated the Hasidim and their radical teachings. Reb Meir was always inviting his misnaged friend to join him on his many visits to his rebbe, but Reb Gershon’s hatred of Hasidism was so strong that he could never consent to visiting his partners rebbe. Not wishing to hurt the feelings of his friend, he would find many reasons to explain why travel to Lechovitch was out of the question. It once happened, however, that separate business matters brought both men to Lechovitch on the same day. Discovering that his friend would be in town at the same time as himself, Reb Meir once again invited Reb Gershon to visit his rebbe. Seeing no way out that would not be offensive to Reb Meir, Reb Gershon agreed.
When the two men arrived at Reb Mordechai’s house, they were ushered into the rebbe’s dining room, where he was just beginning to eat his dinner. Reb Meir urged his friend to speak to the rebbe, to ask a question, to say something, but Reb Gershon—the cranky Hasid-hater-- was suddenly in a state of pure ecstasy, and he couldn’t even speak as he stared at the rebbe. After a few minutes, they left the rebbe’s house. Reb Meir said to his friend, “What just happened to you in there?” Reb Gershon said, “I saw the rebbe eating with the holiness of the Kohen Gadol [the ancient High Priest of all Israel]!” Shocked, Reb Meir turned from his friend and ran back into the house to his rebbe. When he arrived he said, “Rebbe, here I come to see you as often as I can, and never have I seen the way you serve the Holy One, Blessed Be He. And yet my misnaged friend comes for a minute, under duress, and he sees the miracle of your eating. Is this fair?”
The rebbe said, “It is not about fairness, my friend. Your friend is a misnaged; he has to see the Truth with his own eyes. You, on the other hand, are a Hasid; you have to trust even what you cannot see with your eyes.”
I bring all these stories today: the story of Jeremy in Buchenwald, the story of the Binding of Isaac, the story of Hagar, the story of Reb Meir—because they all have one thing in common: they’re all about seeing. They’re about what we see, and what we cannot see. They’re all about trusting, and not being afraid—that even when we can’t see it, this world, this Reality of ours, as nightmarish as it appears, is ultimately good. Some of us, sometimes like Reb Gershon the misnaged, can see that good directly. Most of us are like Hagar, and we despair of ever ultimately seeing the good. But Reb Meir, and each of us, is called upon to see with Jeremy’s eyes, and with Abraham’s eyes—to see beyond the nightmare.
Two psychologists named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons recently wrote a book called “The Invisible Gorilla.” In it, they describe numerous experiments that seem to prove that the way we perceive reality is not as absolute as we think it is. The most amusing experiment involved asking subjects to view a short film where a group of people are passing basketballs back and forth between each other. The subjects’ assignment is simply to count the number of basketball passes and report what they counted. At the end of the experiment, they are asked, ‘Did you notice anything unusual while watching the film?’ Fifty percent of the subjects said no. That’s pretty amazing because if you watch the film again, right as the people are passing the basketball around, someone in a gorilla suit ambles right into the middle of the room. The gorilla pounds its chest a couple of times, and then slowly ambles out of the room. The fifty percent who didn’t see the gorilla were usually incredulous. And yet, they just missed it because they didn’t expect to see it. Our minds often don’t see at all what we don’t expect to see. Fifty percent of the time, any of us are like Hagar. We’re blinded by expectations, by our fears, by our despair itself.
But what’s amazing is that Abraham while was walking up that mountainside with his son, he, too, couldn’t see—visually—any sign of hope yet for his son. And yet, there was something in him that kept his eyes open in search of that ram. Something in him, as Reb Mordechai showed us, trusted even what you or I might not see with the naked eye…
Back to the story of Jeremy in Buchenwald: our author, Jacques Lusseyran, could not imagine why Jeremy would say “For one who knows how to see, things [here in Buchenwald] are just as they always are,” until finally Jeremy enabled Jacques to see. Lusseyran writes, “It was not a revelation, a flashing discovery of the truth. I don’t think there was even an exchange of words. But one day it became obvious, palpable to me in the flesh that Jeremy the welder had lent me his eyes…With those eyes, I saw that Buchenwald was not unique, not even privileged to be one of the places of greatest human suffering. I also saw that our camp was not in Germany, as we thought…in this precise place and no other. Jeremy taught me, with his eyes, that Buchenwald was in each one of us, baked and rebaked, tended incessantly, nurtured in a horrible way. And that, consequently we could vanquish it, if we desired to with enough force. Jeremy had always seen people living in fear…It was always, it was here [too], the same spectacle. Simply, the conditions [here in the camp] had been completely fulfilled…a masterpiece, a perfect sickness and misery: a concentration camp.”
What indeed did Jacques Lusseyran see when he looked at Buchenwald with Jeremy’s eyes? Yes, he saw Buchenwald. He saw the starvation, the suffering, the brutality, the death everywhere. He saw the same nightmare that everyone else could see. But he could also see something that only a very few—Jeremy, Abraham, Moses, King David, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luthor King Jr.—could see. He could see that the nightmare of Buchenwald, or the nightmare of Abraham’s world of child sacrifice, was not the final nightmare of this world that God has created. Lusseyran looked at Buchenwald and saw that it was not just one particular place. He saw that there are people—the Hagars of the world—who create and recreate Buchenwald everywhere they go. Everywhere they see enemies closing in, they have eyes only for the darkness, for the suffering, for the reasons not to trust. And even though God is giving us wells flowing with life-giving water everywhere, in every moment, we’re blind to them. We can’t even see the gorilla in the room because we have so conditioned ourselves never to expect to see beyond our own projected nightmares and despairing beliefs about the world, about life, about God.
It seems so difficult to believe or even hold onto this message of hope—that this world of ours is indeed good. No matter how we read it, the story of the Binding of Isaac disturbs us to our core, as does every aspect of the Holocaust; as does every story of misery we tell ourselves. The story of Jeremy ends simply and tragically. One day, Jeremy came to Lusseyran and told him that this would be the last time they would see each other. That was it. Several days passed, and someone told Lusseyran that Jeremy had died there in the camp, in Buchenwald. That’s what it was like in the camps. People died every day. That’s how it is for us here in our world too. Is this a reason to despair, to close our eyes to this world? Certainly not. For Lusseyran, Jeremy showed him a profound vision of the Truth: “the discovery that God is there, in each person, to the same degree, completely in each moment, and that a return can be made to Him.”
Jeremy and Abraham and Reb Mordechai, and all the great spiritual teachers of the world share with us this message that each of our souls thirst for like those life-giving waters that saved Yishmael: that the nature of this world—in each and every moment—is so vastly more amazing and beautiful and extraordinary than anything that our little eyes can see. Our minds are structured only to see, to perceive, that which we have been conditioned to perceive. For most of us, that conditioning is all about fear and mistrust. But look deeper! Right now, there are countless blessings that are keeping you alive, sustaining you, bringing you from moment to moment! Yes, there are enemies and threats and problems and injustices that we must work against in this world, but keep looking more deeply. In this moment, this life of ours, is nothing but miracles unfolding for us. If you don’t see what I’m talking about, keep your eyes and your heart open, keep looking till you find the miracles that are all about you, all within you, within each of us.
We must never shut our eyes. We must never be afraid to look. What’s really there is, believe it or not, is kind. What’s really there is the potential for justice. What’s always really there is the potential for infinite goodness. What’s really there, beyond what we see merely with our eyes—is God! When that Divine voice called to Abraham to put down his knife, he lifted up his eyes, and behold, there was a ram with its horn stuck in the thicket. Abraham had told his son the Truth. He had trusted the goodness that even his eyes could not yet see—God would really provide a ram to be seen! When Abraham left that fateful spot there on the time of Mount Moriah, he named the place after his experience: ‘Adonai Yir’eh,’ which literally means: God will appear. God will be seen. May we all learn this, the deepest wisdom of this story, of our tradition. It is the light that we, the Jewish people, must bring to the nations of the world itself: that despite all apparent proof to the contrary, we must always look. We must always see. We must never give up—even when there is violence, betrayal, and death. We must keep our eyes open and never despair, for indeed, Adonai Yir’eh—God will be seen. The goodness, the kindness is really there, even more deeply and truly than the apparent nightmare that we may behold. That goodness is always right here. Right now. In this year, may each of us truly look and behold this Truth, and may we, like Abraham, be a blessing to the world.
[i] Jacques Lusseyran, “Le Monde Commence Aujour-d’hui,” translated by Noelle Oxenhandler . Appearing in Parabola Volume XI, No. 2., p. 25.