If today’s current events are unfathomable, it is at least in part because of our inability to get inside one another’s heads. The echo-chambers in which we reside is all-encompassing. Perhaps because the political divide is so great in today’s America; perhaps because of the rancorous tone set last election cycle and now ingrained in our national culture; perhaps because of what it takes to sell news … we are losing the ability to be able to understand opinions different than our own.
I think of this as I read Parashat B’reishit this week. In particular, this verse:
וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה
“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
The rabbis notice the odd spelling of that first word, v’yitzer, which is spelled here with two yods. Normally it would be just one.
Rav Nachman, son of Rav Chisda, taught: Why, in ‘the Lord God made man’ is ‘made’ written with two yods? … Rav Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: Two faces did the Holy One, Blessed be He, create in the first man. (Babylonian Talmud, 61a)
I love this midrash. If primordial man (adam) had two faces – one in the front of his head and one in the back, then
I have a place in the rear of the head, the occiput, in which my hidden thoughts and my mental reservations accumulate. Refuge which can hold an entire thought. But here, instead of the occiput, a second face! Everything is exposed; everything in me confronts (fait face [in French]), and must answer. (Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 167)
Primordial man could not hide, not from God (the only other “character” in the story at this point in Genesis). In this midrash, that second face becomes the “rib” from which woman is formed – that’s why we don’t have a second face, that’s why we have the occiput. The back of our heads are covered up with bone…and so we can keep secrets. Your thoughts are hidden from me. We have one another (good thing that second human was created!), but we also have privacy. We not only can keep our thoughts to ourselves, but it is built into our very physical structure.
The only way to know what one another is thinking, then, is by communicating. By the expression on our one face, by speaking with our one mouth, by looking into one another’s eyes. If I’m having trouble understanding the other side of a debate or an issue – much less why my partner doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste – it’s because I can’t know what someone else is thinking…until we have a conversation about it. If I find myself irate because of what I’m reading in my echo chamber of newspapers and posts, it’s because I am exposed to a superficial exposition (superficial, from the Latin: super – above, facies – face).
How to bring this home? We obviously cannot pick up the phone and call Amy Coney Barrett or Vice President Biden or President Trump and ask them what they are really thinking. But we can do that with one another. We can act out this lesson of Parashat B’reishit by granting one another the respect that comes from knowing that each of us has a rich inner life. Our ideas, thoughts and feelings are hidden from one another – when we’re schmoozing at kiddush after services during “normal” times, and all the more so now, when we are isolated from one another. And so we need to step it up and reach out to one another. To ask what’s happening not only superficially, but inside. We need to reach out to one another – especially to the isolated among us, to the ones we haven’t seen in shul in months because of covid. Pick up the phone, reach out to someone whose one precious face you haven’t seen in a long time, hear how they are doing in the back of their heads. Bonus points for thinking of calling the isolated among us, the people in our community who haven’t seen another face in a long time because of the health crisis.
And, when you find yourself thinking, “I don’t believe this,” as you watch the daily news, take that thought as the starting point for going more deeply into the own back of your head. What do we need to do to reach across the political divide to hear someone else’s insides, to have a conversation with someone whose opinions are different from ours? Beyond that – how can we live with differences, with the knowledge that not only are our faces different, but so are our thoughts? Perhaps the key is in reading the full verse, and remembering that it is God’s breath that animates us all – no matter how incomprehensible our political opinions may be.
Rabbi Abigail Treu