I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “seeing is believing” and wondering if it’s actually true. (See my Dvar on Parshat Bo)
For while there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not always the case. Although it often takes witnessing something with one’s own eyes to fully integrate it into our psyche to allow us to believe in its authenticity - we still don’t always believe.
We see things and we don’t believe them.
On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. If the past months, indeed the past several years, have taught us anything, it is that. On the other hand, however, we too often see things that are truth and our brains refuse to accept what our eyes are witnessing.
We saw evidence of this type of skepticism when we read of how Pharaoh deals with the plagues. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes -even with his own body! Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites and agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. And as we know… Pharaoh believes for a moment and then denies reality once again.
So Pharaoh saw and even experienced and after a few twists and turns, ultimately did not believe.
In this week’s Torah Portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23) we are given evidence of exactly the opposite – where one does NOT need to see or to experience in order to believe. We are taught this in just the first verse of the chapter, Exodus 18:
וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
Yitro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.
This one verse says it all! One doesn’t need to see to believe, one can believe through hearing and using one’s prior knowledge and intellect in order to believe.
Exactly how does this verse teach us this lesson? We are introduced to Yitro, a priest of Midian who also happens to be Moses’ father-in-law. The sages tell us that Yitro was not merely a priest but the High Priest of his people, someone who knew all about gods (small “g” gods) and in fact had worshipped all the other known gods of that era. Yitro was also considered one of the greatest leaders of that time.
What exactly did Yitro hear that made him believe despite all his experience with other gods?
According to Rashi, a 12th century commentator from France, the key to what Yitro heard are indeed the words “all that God had done” - the word “All” refers to the sending down of the manna; giving the people water in the desert; saving them from and defeating Amalek (which happened immediately prior to this at the end of last week’s Torah portion); and he also heard about the splitting of the Red Sea. Others say that Yitro also heard about the giving of the Torah
But the what I think was the most significant is the phrase at the very end of the verse: כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ - how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.
Remember that first verse of Dayenu from Passover with the word Hotzi/to bring? – Ilu Hotzi Hotzianu, Hotzianu mi m’Mitzrayim, Dayenu. If only God had Hotzi – had taken us out from Egypt – That would have been enough! Dayenu!
Yitro heard that God had not only brought the Israelite out of Egypt but also out of bondage According to Or HaChaim, an early 18th century commentator God brought the Israelites out of Egypt while the definition "slaves" still applied to them. In order to change their status, God pressured Pharaoh into releasing them and also created a situation whereby Pharaoh and his army all drowned in the sea so there were no longer any masters who could have disputed the Israelites' claim to being free people. In those times, if they had just escaped on their own from Egypt, legally they would have continued to be considered slaves.
Pharaoh saw and even experienced, but did not believe. Yitro neither saw nor experienced, but he did hear – and he did believe.
Earlier this week I had the privilege and the joy of being a guest storyteller in a Kindergarten class of a local Jewish Day School. Full disclosure – my daughter is the Hebrew and Judaics teacher of this class. I get to do this a few times a year and always have so much fun – the children are not only hysterical in the way only kindergarteners can be, but they are also very wise and are constantly teaching me something new.
I read them one of my favorite stories called “Does God have a Big Toe,” by Marc Gellman. In the story this little girl goes around asking everyone in her family if God has a big toe. As they are all busy with whatever they are doing, they all shoo her off to someone else – you know “go ask your father” type of thing. Ultimately a family friend asks the king if God has a big toe. The king orders everyone in the kingdom to stop what they are doing and build a tower that would reach God so the king could check if God does indeed have a big toe. I won’t tell you the rest of the story but the story is based on the Tower of Babel incident in Genesis.
After I read the story I had a discussion with the students about what they learned. Some of it was very straightforward – everyone wanted to know if God did indeed have a big toe and then began wondering about different body parts as well. But then the discussion changed and one child asked – wait a minute, does God even have a body? Another child said – God is invisible, we all know that. And another asked: why were they even looking for parts of God’s body? Didn’t they know that God doesn’t have a body?
So these children already know that being created in God’s image doesn't mean that God looks like us or we look like God.
Pharaoh saw God’s power and even experienced it, but did not believe. Yitro neither saw nor experienced it, but he did hear about it– and he did believe.
These 5 and 6 year olds have not seen, and I don’t know what they have experienced. But they have heard the stories of our heritage, of our Torah, and that is enough for many of them to believe.
So I leave you with this question: with all that is going on in our world right now, what is the relationship in your life among seeing, hearing, experiencing and believing? Do our traditions help you in any way when you are unsure?
We live in a complicated world, my wish for all of us is the ability to hear distinctly, to see clearly and to be open to possibilities that life presents.