By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
first learned this lesson in my training as a psychotherapist, long ago: One does not see what one does not want to see, no matter how blatant and obvious the facts are.
I learned that all the evidence in the world will not convince someone who prefers to be blind to that evidence. All the arguments in the world, however rational and forceful they may be, cannot persuade a person who is clinging to his preferred beliefs.
In truth, I should have learned this lesson long before I embarked upon a career in psychology. I should have learned it when I first studied this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8), which says:
“Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, ‘You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt…The wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.’” (Deuteronomy 29:1-3)
To paraphrase: “You saw, but you did not see. You heard, but you did not hear. All that you needed to know was before you, but did not have the mind to understand.”
A great rabbi in Israel had a collection of his writings on the Torah portions of the week issued shortly after his untimely death 50 years ago. In this collection, Min HaBe’er (From the Well), Rabbi Bar-Shaul reflects upon these verses and writes:
“There is a magnificent teaching here in these verses for all generations and all situations. A person can see wondrous things, true revelations, and yet, paradoxically, not see them…The Almighty, blessed be he, gives the person eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to understand, but it is the person who must choose to see and hear and understand. It is the person who must open his eyes well to see, and even then he cannot see unless he also opens his heart to understand. For if a person just sees with his eyes alone, he may react emotionally. But as long he does not direct his mind to what he has seen, his emotional reactions will fall short of understanding, of knowing…
“It is not for us to have critical thoughts about our ancestors who failed to see. But the Torah here is giving us both a guideline and a warning signal. When Moses tells the people of Israel, ‘You have seen…But you were not given a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear,’ he is calling upon us, today, to think deeply and well about these words and to apply them to our own circumstances.”
So often in our history we have failed to see facts that were apparent to those who possessed understanding hearts. Most tragically, regarding the Holocaust many of us ask, “Did they not see what was coming? Did our enemies not warn us very clearly about their intentions to destroy us? Why did so few take advantage of opportunities to escape before escape became impossible?”
These questions haunt us still today. Perhaps, they questions are beyond our capacity to answer. But what we can learn, in less tragic circumstances, is to do our utmost to understand what the Almighty has allowed us to see.
He has allowed us to see, for example, a thriving Jewish state. We must understand its significance. He has allowed us to hear the voices of children studying His Torah, and the sounds of yeshivot greater in size than ever before in history. Our hearts must celebrate these achievements. We will soon see throngs of Jews all over the world congregating to hear the sounds of the shofar calling upon us to become better Jews and human beings.
The Almighty will let us see these sights and hear these sounds. We must open our hearts and minds not just to see and hear them but to understand them, appreciate them, and grow from them.
Let us not permit these blessed sights and sounds to be ignored. Let others not be able to ask of us, “How could you not see them? How could you not hear them?”
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.