By Daniel Chejfec
I find myself lately recalling a unique experience I had when serving as Executive Director of the Central Kentucky Jewish Federation. I was part of a downtown coalition working to provide support for the homeless and raise awareness in the general community. As part of our efforts we created a program called “Keep the Heat On”, in which people from all walks of life, Ministers, businessmen, politicians, etc, spent 24 hours in the streets living as homeless. One of those years when I participated, I remember going with the others in my group to the Convention Center, where people from all over Kentucky has come for a “sweet sixteen” basketball tournament. This was after spending the night sleeping in a parking structure, and we looked rather “ratty”, half-grown beard in the case of the men. We walked through the crowd at the convention center, crossing in front of many people. They all parted for us, but not one looked at us in the eyes.
The reason I keep thinking about it is because it revealed to me a rather unflattering side of Human nature; as the Spanish saying goes, when the eyes don't see, the heart cannot feel. And many people turn their eyes away because they don't want to be confronted with a painful reality, and it goes way beyond our program all those years back.
This selective blindness is evident when it come to genocide – in Darfur, in Uganda, in the Balkans, and all the way to World War II, Hitler and beyond. It also becomes evident when we don't want to accept failure or mistakes; it is manifest in people or organizations holding to their businesses or their property beyond the point when they stop being useful; it shows itself in automatically blaming “the other” (be it in politics, economy or even friendship) for whatever goes wrong without even looking at our own responsibility in the situation.
The best known prayer of Jewish liturgy is the Sh'ma; and Sh'ma means to listen – not to hear but to listen, to truly engage ourselves in the connection. Truth, the Sh'ma refers to the proclamation of God's unity, but it teaches us that in any relationship worth having, we need to take an active role. Next time you're standing in a crowd, and a disheveled guy with half-grown beard looks at you – remember to see, but also to look, to engage actively in the situation. Might not be much, but as somebody who found himself on the receiving end of the selective blindness, I can tell you it does make a difference...and once you did that, it is easier to look and to listen to the world given to us as Custodians – and maybe, just maybe, do our part in fixing it up a bit before we hand it over to the next generation...