Friday, September 7, 2012

An Understanding Heart; Choice or gift?

Muslim and Jewish students form relationships at a
Together For Humanity run interschool program,
in Sydney Australia. Some prefer to sit with their
peers as can be seen by  the clusters of green and blue
school uniforms. They are gently coaxed to develop greater
comfort with each other, during an interschool cooking
activity at Our Big Kitchen this week. 

Yesterday I observed Jewish and Muslim children and young adults responding to each other with varying degrees of love.  There were young girls from two schools one Muslim the other Jewish, hugging each other good bye and boys engaged in cool and comfortable friendly chatting.  One boy seemed less sure about it all, saying he would miss the others, then adding; “or maybe not”. 

The young adults also ranged from open hearted sharing, moving reflection and good will to two much more guarded young men, who seemed to me (perhaps wrongly) to approach the whole thing with suspicion.  It set me thinking about the process of acquiring understanding.

A gift?
It seems to me that understanding is at least to some extent a gift from our parents, our experiences or even from God either in our essential nature, or some other act of grace.  This seems to be confirmed by this phrase from our reading this week about Moses’ speech to his people at the end of a 40 year trek through the desert and on the last day of his life. “Moses called all of Israel and said to them, "You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land; …the great signs and wonders (Miracles). Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear[i]”.

In ten years of bridge building work, I have learned that understanding cannot be created on demand, nor can it be rushed.  It needs to be given the chance to develop.  In the case of the Jews in the desert it is only after 40 years they can understand what happened with the gift of hindsight[ii].  Perhaps what is needed is a change of circumstances, such as the death of the charismatic Moses (on “this day”) for people to understand the full picture, in this case the more important factor which is the hand of God[iii].

The Choice & responsibility argument
If people are to be held responsible for their actions, it would be because we assume them to have the ability to make choices.  Commentaries, therefore, reinterpret the idea of “God not giving people the heart to know” in ways that shift the responsibility back to the people. One simply adds a question mark, so it is a rhetorical question rather than a statement, “Did God not give you a heart..?![iv] One suggests that God did not give the people a heart for the purpose of forgetting him, as they did, but rather for the purpose of choosing to know…[v]. Another argues that the intent here is about God’s role being limited to being the ultimate first cause of everything[vi], so the argument is that it could be said that God did not, in the end, provide them with a heart to understand but this was because of their own rebelliousness[vii] and their choice to test (rather than trust) God and to forget the miracles they had seen[viii]. 

A combination
Understanding certainly involves some effort on our part, yet much of what we achieve in our understanding of our fellow man or of God is a gift. One commentator expressed it as follows, “God favours man with understanding. But God will only bestow this gift on one who makes a genuine effort…[ix]” In one mystical tradition, through our good deeds we become worthy of being gifted with additional and loftier layers of our souls[x]. 
This combination is seen in one text that combines advice to avoid judging and disparaging people by understanding their faults as being “caused” by their difficult circumstances, yet also asserting that regardless of what situations people find themselves in, they are still responsible for their choices and behaviour[xi].
The Very Ugly Man
Rabbi Eliezer was once riding on a donkey on the coast, he was feeling really happy because he had studied a lot of Torah[xii].  Then he chanced upon a very ugly man, (not just in the physical sense but it was clear to the Rabbi that the man had an ugly character[xiii]).

The man greeted him, "Shalom, Rabbi!" Rabbi Eliezer did not return the greeting. Instead, he stared at the man and said, "Empty (headed) one! Are all the inhabitants of your town as ugly as you?"

The man replied: " Why don't you tell the craftsman who made me, “how ugly is the vessel you made?"
Because he realised that he had done wrong, Rabbi Eliezer went down from his donkey, prostrated himself and begged the man for forgiveness. .. [xiv]

Judgemental and Smug
I remember some years ago feeling quite judgmental and hostile toward a man who I thought had a serious deficit of understanding and capacity for empathy.   I realised that like Rabbi Eliezer, I objected not to his actions but his nature.  I realised that I was giving myself credit for my nature, which I believe is essentially a gift and blaming him for defects in his nature which essentially was not his own doing.   I learned to appreciate him for his strengths, while still not liking some of his less endearing attitudes.   Remarkably, after I accepted him for who he was, I noticed a gradual shift in some of his thinking and behaviour.

Understanding is both a gift and a choice.  On Let us not feel superior to those who have not yet reached the degree of understanding that we enjoy, only partly due to our own efforts.  Still, those of us who “understand” have an obligation and opportunities to try to provide opportunities for those not yet blessed with understanding hearts.

[i] Deuteronomy 29:1-3
[ii] Melechet Machshavet, cited in Leibovitz, N, Studies in Devarim, Elizer Library, Department For Torah education…the Joint Authority for Jewish, Zionist Education, Jerusalem, P.292
[iii] Meshech Chochma
[iv] Abarbanel
[v] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, in his translation he simply adds the words “for the purpose of forgetting him, as you did, but rather” , between “has not given you a heart”, and “to know”
[vi] Ibn Ezra
[vii] Seforno
[viii] Ibn Ezra
[ix] Malbin, cited and translated in Leibovitz
[x] This is my understanding of a central theme in the Ben Ish Chai’s writing
[xi] Tanya 30
[xii] There is an element of self-satisfaction here. See
[xiii] I was unable to find the source for this commentary at this time.
[xiv] Talmud, Taanit 20a &b

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