A large man, disheveled and filthy, stood beside the freeway off ramp with a tattered sign, “Will Work For Food.” I stopped and stared for a long time. I had never seen this before in my pristine suburban neighborhood. My rumination was broken by the voices of my children from the back seat: “Abba, why is that man standing there? Why does he look so sad?” That was difficult. More difficult was the moment just weeks later when they no longer noticed. We cruise down the off ramp and don’t see. The beggars, the bag ladies, the homeless have become part of our landscape, part of the unnoticed backdrop of daily experience. There’s a tree, a stoplight, a trash can, and the indigent. Our children have grown accustomed to the presence of poverty and human degradation in their midst. It no longer shakes them. And should they notice, they feel no connection, no compassion, and no obligation. The poor are another species, citizens of another dimension. They have no claim on us. They are invisible.
Sight is a reflex triggered by light striking the eye and sending an impulse through the optic nerve to the brain. But vision is much more complicated. Vision is conditioned by culture, by personality, by expectation. Vision is not passive. We see what we are trained to see. We overlook what we are taught to ignore. We perceive through screens erected by our culture. It was expected that a black woman would give up her seat on the bus to a white man in 1954 Montgomery, Ala. It was normal. No one noticed until Rosa Parks refused. And before Betty Friedan taught us otherwise, boys could dream of becoming astronauts, firemen, and scientists, and girls were offered three choices: teacher, nurse, or mother.
For centuries, Western thought has argued about the basis of ethics. Is the good something we know? Something we intuit? Something we prefer? Something we obey? Does our sense of the good and the right come from within — the voice of conscience — or from without — from social convention and contract? The Torah offers a radical solution: Jewish ethics are rooted in empathy, and empathy is rooted in memory. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) We identify with the “other.” We were the man on the corner with the sign. And, deep within, we are still that man. We feel his humiliation, his despair, his need.
Empathy is a demanding ethic. It requires a permeable sense of self, open to the pain of another being. It requires the skill to meet the other in all of her or his humanity. The man on the corner needs more than a few bucks. He needs his humanity restored. Slavery taught us that the destruction of the soul is more acute than the deprivations of the body. Most of all, empathy insists on a response. Once we see the other, we cannot walk away unwounded, unchanged. Empathy is unforgiving.
And empathy is exhausting. How much of the world’s pain can I absorb? If I give to this beggar, aren’t there ten more on the next corner and millions more around the globe? Who can countenance such suffering? So I roll up the car window and pretend he isn’t there…and soon, he isn’t. He’s become invisible.
Jewish law forbids us to erase God’s name. To render a human being invisible is to erase the image of God from the world: the image of God in my own soul, as well as in the other. To lose empathy is to lose what’s most human in us. In the Bible, God sent prophets to open our eyes and save us. It wasn’t radical evil the prophets rebuked, but the normal, everyday, invisible cruelty dwelling on every street corner in every urban society. The poor, the broken, the hungry were invisible then as they are now. The just society, taught the prophets, begins with open eyes. “Abba, why is that man standing there?” Good question, my child. Let’s go ask him.email print