Getting Out of Your Own Way
My friend Jen could never have known when she accepted her colleagues’ invitation to join them for an after-work party that she was the only one in the office who did not share their recreational drug habit. She could never have foretold that trying something just once to be social would turn out to be a thrill beyond her wildest imagination, or that the feeling of belonging it would engender would push her to regular use with her new friends. It was not until a few parties turned into a few months and then a few years that she realized she had become addicted, and that this addiction was ruining her life.
In the months that followed her detox and recovery, she began to wonder: To what had she been the most blind? Her growing addiction? The loneliness and need for acceptance that allowed it to flourish? The passage of time as she formed the habit? And, how many times had she ignored—totally unable to hear it—the pleading of family and friends to stop?
I found myself thinking of Jen—and of my own struggles and habits—when I read Leviticus 19:14: “You shall not . . . place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” Taken literally, this is a verse about respecting the disabled. Taken figuratively—as the Rabbis give us ample precedent and license to do—it is about all of us.
Who is blind? Well, we all are. Rashi says it straight out, on his gloss to before the blind: “hasuma badavar,” he writes; you shall not place a stumbling block before one who is blind about something. Addiction is a hard example; but don’t we come up against this regularly, whether the topic at hand is about taking the car keys away from parents who do not recognize they are no longer safe drivers, or encouraging someone to end a relationship that is harmful to them? We have all lived through the excruciating experience of seeing something someone else does not. What this verse invites us to consider is how we help one another through that blind spot, to see what is so difficult for us to see.
Of course, we are in a bind. Rashi notes what Jen experienced when he writes about not giving advice to someone that is not appropriate for him or her. We might think we know best, but the other person cannot hear it; moreover, we might not really know, for we too are blinded by self-interest, love, our own habits and weaknesses and personalities. The Yom Kippur liturgy, with its invocation of sins we committed knowingly and unknowingly, is a reference to this, too. We are all blind, and we all trip, and we have to work hard not to cause one another and ourselves too much damage or pain. By the time the Rabbis of the Talmud are done with this verse, they have applied it to offering wine to a nazir (who has taken a vow of abstention from alcohol), selling shatnetz (the mixture of linen and wool forbidden in this week’s parashah) to an unsuspecting customer, and handing a weapon to one who is prone to violence. Each of these seems pertinent to the problems of our society, in which we worry about “rights versus responsibilities” when it comes to things like drugs, credit lending, and gun violence.
Read that broadly, the verse becomes a charge of social obligation. Nechama Leibowitz defines blind as one who is greedy, selfish, or morally callous to the extent that he or she is blinded from doing what is just. She writes from Israel in 1974:
The arms merchant cannot extenuate his act by claiming that he had not sold his death-dealing instruments for illicit uses, and that he left the decision on when to use them to the discretion of the purchasers . . . the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large . . . By not protesting . . . you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.” (Studies in Vayikra/Leviticus, 1974)
By now we have been offered two definitions of blind: Rashi’s hasuma badavar, one who is blind about a particular matter, and Leibowitz’s moral blindness of a lazy social conscience. Nachmanides offers a third, based on his reading of the final part of the verse, “You shall fear your God. I am the Lord.”
What is that last part of the verse doing here? In this double parashah, and indeed throughout the humash, we see it over and over again, and so it is tempting to read right through it. But if we slow down, we wonder: what is it teaching us here? Nachmanides writes that only God is the One who sees that which is hidden. In fact, he points out, unobserved crimes are more likely to be committed; it is human nature to try to get away with something when we think we will not be caught. And so, in a know-before-Whom-you-stand vein, he admonishes: fear the God who sees all. It will keep you from stepping into your own blind spot, or tripping up someone else who cannot see what they are doing.
Years ago, walking down an overcrowded Broadway sidewalk during rush hour, I witnessed the crowd jostle a blind man who was guiding himself with a red-tipped walking stick. “Excuse me,” he announced to all around him quite theatrically. “I didn’t see you.” It strikes me that, in fact, we are all that man, and we are all the crowd bumping into him, too. Walking down the crowded path of life we bump into one another with no malicious intent, but with plenty of ability to do harm. So, too, we guide ourselves with what means we have in order to navigate our own life’s path despite our own blind spots—be they physical, psychological, or moral. While our haftarah this week is Amos, who warns us against sin but also holds out hope for redemption, my own thoughts turn to Isaiah, who offers a different use of that same verb, fear. “Fear not, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God: I will strengthen you, indeed, I will help you; moreover I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.” (41:10). Somewhere between fearing God and trusting in God’s guidance, somewhere between the self-awareness that each of us is blind in our way and the commitment that we will not place a stumbling block in another’s path, we gather the strength to overcome life’s challenges.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld