God took notice, a verse in this week’s Torah reading tells us. What does it mean to take notice, especially to notice something or someone others fail to notice? Andy Warhol once said, “I always notice flowers.” Well, Andy, flowers are almost always noticeable. We are drawn to look at that which brings us pleasure, not that which brings us pain, especially inanimate objects of beauty which don’t challenge our sensibilities. We turn away from that which disturbs us because once we catch a glimpse of it, we can no longer pretend that we do not see it. The visual intake creates obligation. On a verse in Proverbs, “What brightens the eye gladdens the heart...” (15:30), Rashi observes that what brightens the heart is natural phenomena - lakes and mountains, a gorgeous landscape. It lifts us up and carries us to happy places. Not so with trauma. We look away from the homeless woman on the street because if we do not notice her, she does not exist. The eye can be very selfish.
And it is not only God who takes notice here. In Exodus 2, Moses looks at that which others turn away from: a rotten and cruel taskmaster, an Israelite fight, a group of innocent shepherdesses being harassed. To take notice is to pay attention, to focus, to give one’s full mind and heart to something. It took almost two chapters of Exodus for God to respond to the pain of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s harsh and demonic rule. According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, God only pays attention to the Israelites’ cry when they actually moan. In the first chapter of Exodus, when forced labor is introduced and Pharaoh makes an edict about the male children, the Israelites withhold their pain saying nothing. There is no protest, no outcry, no advocacy, no prayer.
Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that redemption rests with a word. I cannot help you if you do not express your pain and your need. But the moment you do, I have a responsibility to you that I cannot deny. Only when Moses was introduced into the story in chapter two do the people then cry out to God, and God notices them. Rabbi Soloveithcik contends that only once a redeemer was introduced into the story could the people stop withholding their pain and cry out because there was someone to hear it. It is a very basic building block of our humanity and leadership. Help people express pain and they will be one step closer to redeeming their suffering.
This week I heard Dr. Mona Fishbane speak powerfully about the verse quoted above. Citing the Hasidic scholar Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, she drew my attention to all of the verbs used in the verse: to hear, to remember, to look and to notice. All of these verbs create a trajectory of compassion. She cited Sue Johnson, a leading couples therapist, who writes that, “Most [couple] fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me?...Do I matter to you?....The anger, the criticism, the demands are really cries to their lovers, calls to stir their heart.”
After suffering, people ask the same question of God that they ask in their most intimate and important relationships. Do you notice me? Am I important to you? How would I know that?
We redeem others first by noticing - noticing that something has changed in their life situation or their disposition, their attitude or their looks, their interests or their needs. Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming we know everything about another person. We don’t have to notice anything new. But people are active, dynamic beings living in a constantly changing and evolving universe. Perhaps we don’t want to notice because it will exact a cost upon us. Our noticing obliges us to pay closer attention, to be more responsible, to engage in greater empathy.
God and Moses are teaching us to pay attention, to look at that which is not easy to look at and to redeem the pain of others because we paid attention.
What will you notice differently because you are paying greater attention?