See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Before my time there was a movie called See No Evil, Hear No Evil about a blind man and a deaf man who become friends. They work together, having each other’s back as they navigated the difficult world. They challenged by a shooting in the store in which they worked for which they were considered suspects. Through a comedic turn of events they determined the criminals and brought them to justice.

That movie reminds me of a line I’d like to discuss in this morning’s Torah portion. In one of Balak’s blessings to Israel, he says לא הביט און ביעקב ולא ראה עמל בישראל ה אלקנו עמו ותרועת מלך בו, “One does not see evildoers in Jacob or transgression in Israel; Adonai his G-d, is with them, and he has the king’s acclaim.”[1] How can we take this seriously? We know that there are plenty of evildoers in Israel, from Bernie Madoff to Harvey Weinstein. What does it mean that G-d is with us? That doesn’t stop Jews from doing evil.

Rashi says this can’t possibly be what the text means. Rather it is not that one does not see evildoers but rather that G-d does not look at (הביט) evildoers. כשהן עוברין על דבריו, אינו מדקדק אחריכם להתבונן באוניות שלהם ועמלן שהן עוברין על דתו “When they transgress his commandments, he does not pursue them exactingly by reflecting on the wickedness of their wrongdoing of their violation of His doctrines.”[2]

Rashi is saying of course Jews err: we’re human like everyone else. There will be times when each of us engages in wrongdoing. What is important to recognize is that wrongdoing has occurred, to strive to change and then to let it go. G-d will not pursue us exactingly for our misdeeds. He will notice them but does not dwell on them. In other words, He gives us the opportunity to change our ways without overly punishing us for what we did.

When I brought up the title See No Evil, Hear No Evil, I was being facetious. I was not trying to say that G-d doesn’t see what we do wrong but rather that G-d has רחמים, readily forgiving us for our actions when we fall short. In so doing, G-d demonstrates that the most important thing is not to avoid wrongdoing, for no one can do that, but rather not to dwell on what we did wrong; rather to focus on what we can do to improve and change. For all his faults, Balaam saw that G-d acts with רחמים towards Israel, actively pursuing good on their behalf and giving them ample opportunity to succeed. The lesson is that when we do wrong, to engage in תשובה and move on, rather than to assume that G-d will never forgive us. Often we are the ones who look most harshly at ourselves and our actions, playing over and over again in our heads what we did wrong rather than working to change our faults and letting go of our mistakes. If G-d can see past the bad that we have done, all the more so must we be able to do so. May we work at not seeing evil in ourselves, that we are good and have infinite potential to do good in the world.

Today we are also celebrating the Friends, familiar faces but new members at the Jericho Jewish Center. Both Phil and Pearl Friend saw unspeakable evils in the world as the Nazis committed atrocities against our people. Phil liberated Pearl the day before the Nazis were planning to eliminate her and her mother and last month this young, vibrant woman celebrated her 90th birthday. Last year this “power couple” celebrated their 70th anniversary at the Jericho Jewish Center. With all the atrocities that they saw, Phil and Pearl could have stopped living yet they did the opposite: coming to America, starting the Key Foods supermarket in Astoria and raising a family. For the latter, we are especially grateful, as their daughter Barbara is the heart and soul (as well as the pulse) of the Jericho Jewish Center. Pearl and Phil-you understood that in spite of evil you would live each day to the fullest, and for that we are thrilled. Mazal Tov on becoming new members at the Jericho Jewish Center, and thank you for already giving back to your new congregational home through sponsoring today’s Kiddush.

[1] Numbers 23:21

[2] Rashi on Numbers 23:21 ד”ה לא-הביט עון ביעקב

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