But what if God doesn’t see us?” asks Judah Rosenthal while considering murdering his mistress, Dolores. “Then we just get away with it, don’t we?” The scene occurs in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the solution arrives only with the final song that plays quietly as the credits scroll by. It is the classic “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Woody probably did not get this lesson from this week’s parsha, but he might have. When Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, “God saw and God knew.”
What “God saw,” says Ibn Ezra, was the violence of slavery. What “God knew” was what transpired inside the hearts of the enslaved. It is hard to miss outright torture, the Malbim adds. But people suffer in hidden ways that require knowing.
In Crimes and Misdemeanors, God sees Judah contracting for a hit man to do the deed. God knows poor Dolores’s terror in her final moment of truth.
We too have the dual capacity to see and to know, because we are made in God’s image — we are the sole species able to approximate in our behavior what we imagine God doing — and what God does best is see and know.
Seeing and knowing make us conscious of all sorts of things. Take the man I saw yesterday on the subway: unkempt, slumped in a wheelchair, missing one arm, unable to control his speech, which usually erupted into a painful wail. People looked the other way, choosing not to see or know.
Incredibly enough, tradition demands a blessing over such people — “Blessed is God who makes different kinds of people.” Why would the rabbis compose a blessing for examples of misshapen humanity? It is to make us grasp what we might otherwise find more convenient to miss. Seeing the man on the subway led to seeing those around him: the people ignoring him as if he were dirt, the crowd tumbling out the doors without letting the wheelchair exit first. These were injustices — not gross felonies, perhaps, but moral misdemeanors: the petty theft of a human being’s dignity.
“Seeing” prompts indignation. It finally occurred to me to stand in the doorway to allow the aide to push the wheelchair off the train.
“Knowing,” too, evokes responses: kindly smiles, perhaps, and going home to write a check to medical research, so that others might get the help that my subway man could not.
Life consists of these little affairs of moment. Forget the headlines — they are too daunting. What really can each of us do to detoxify Iran or end poverty on a global scale? But two blocks from where I work, the homeless beg for bread. And a receptionist in an office where I go from time to time seems nowadays to have tears in her eyes. These random strangers are today’s Israelites on a small scale. They are not exactly Dolores (not likely to be murdered), but Dolores was fictitious and they are real. God help us, if we pass them by without seeing and knowing.