Open eyes and an open heart

Open eyes and an open heart

Shemot | Exodus 1:1-6:1

was always taught the advantage of simplicity in language. My favorite author during my adolescence, Ernest Hemingway, criticized writers who used multi-syllable words when shorter ones would suffice.

Then I studied psychology in graduate school and learned quite the opposite: that if one could invent a word with multiple syllables to describe a simple phenomenon, one could gain credibility as an expert, even without real expertise.

Take, for example, the seven-syllable word compartmentalization. Sounds impressive, but what does it mean? I found two meanings: “the act of distributing things into classes or categories of the same type” and, the one pertinent to psychology, “a mild state of dissociation,” a psychological process by which one splits two sets of perceptions or emotions into two separate inner worlds so that one does not affect the other.

All of us practice compartmentalization in this sense when we turn on the TV, see a news report that is especially troubling, and simply turn off the TV. 

This might be normal human behavior, and perhaps even necessary to avoid being constantly overwhelmed with negative emotions. But it is not the behavior of a true leader, and it was not the behavior of Moses in this week’s Torah portion.

Rather, “he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens.” (Exodus 2:11) Rashi comments: “He gave his eyes and his heart [in order] to be troubled about them.” Not only did he not avoid the scene of Jewish suffering, he made sure to behold it (“his eyes”) and that it affected him emotionally (“his heart”). 

Two early-20th-century commentators have much to say about this verse. Rabbi Joseph Hertz writes, “He went out to his brethren. In later ages it must alas be said of many a son of Israel who had become great, that he went away from his brethren.” How well this former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth captures the notion of compartmentalization, by which we look away rather than carefully look at upsetting scenes.

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, known as the “Alter” (elder) of Kelm in his remarkable collection of ethical discourses, points out that Moses was not guilty of compartmentalization. Not content simply to hear about the suffering of his brothers while he sat comfortably in the palace, Moses “went out” to witness it personally. He understood the power of direct sensory perception and wanted to have the image of the burdens of slavery impressed upon his mind’s eye.

For the “Alter,” one of the early leaders of the Mussar movement, ethical behavior demands the use of imagery to arouse emotions and stimulate such behavior. Moses used his eyes to inspire his heart to motivate his actions. Vision, feeling, behavior: the three essential components of the truly ethical personality.

The lesson for all of us is that to be a truly ethical person, one must become familiar with the plight of others and avoid the temptation to “look away.” From a psychological perspective, compartmentalization may be a healthy defense mechanism, but from an ethical perspective, compartmentalization means avoidance of one’s responsibilities to another.

read more: