It is a a lesson I first learned in my training as a psychotherapist, long ago. I was seeing a gentleman for a number of problems, including marital difficulties.
He came to my office, extremely distraught. He blurted out, “She is cheating on me!”
He had discovered incontrovertible evidence of his wife’s infidelity. He said bits and pieces of evidence were available to him for more than a year — letters, phone messages, unexplained absences, and unusual expenditures from their bank account — and he had been aware of all of them, but it was not until that morning that he actually saw what was in front of his eyes all the time.
I was a fledgling psychotherapist, and I exclaimed, “Didn’t you see it coming? Didn’t you notice what was in front of your eyes?” I was not prepared for his angry response.
“Of course I saw it coming, you dummy!” He was furious with me for my total lack of empathy. Of course he had seen it coming, but he did not want to see it.
The lesson I learned — and have tried to remember throughout my personal, professional, and religious life since then — is that that all the evidence in the world will not convince someone who prefers to be blind. All the rational arguments in the world cannot persuade a person who is clinging to his preferred beliefs.
I should have learned this lesson long before — when I first studied this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, and the following passage:
“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 you did not have the mind to understand.”
At about the same time I sat face to face with the betrayed husband, I was introduced to the wisdom of Rabbi Elimelech Bar-Shaul, who died tragically at a young age almost 50 years ago; a collection of his writings, Min HaBe’er — From the Well, was issued shortly after his death.
Rabbi Bar-Shaul reflects upon the phenomenon of blindness and deafness to the sights and sounds that are prominent in our surroundings. He wrote:
“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 not for us to have critical thoughts about our ancestors who failed to see…. 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 many times in our history we have failed to see facts that were apparent to those who possessed understanding hearts. Most tragically, all of us who read about the events leading up to the Holocaust find ourselves asking: “Did they not see what was coming? Did our enemies not warn us about their intentions to destroy us? Why did so few take advantage of opportunities to escape?”
These questions haunt us today and will continue to do so forever; perhaps they are beyond our capacity.
But what we can learn, in less terrible and less tragic circumstances, is to do our utmost to understand what the Almighty has allowed us to see.
He has allowed us to see 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. Our hearts must celebrate these achievements.
In just a few days, we will see throngs of Jews participating in services, and we will hear the sounds of the shofar calling upon us to become better Jews and better 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?”