Like a Blind Person Groping in the Darkness: A Lesson for the New Year
The Jewish year, and thus the annual cycle of the Torah reading, is coming to an end. As we reach the latter half of the concluding book of the Torah — Deuteronomy — Moses knows that he is soon to die without being able to enter the Promised Land. But he is determined to leave us with the disposition, ideas, and attitude we will need to survive and thrive.
In Chapter 27, Moses says that we will see two mountains upon entering the Land. There will be a mountain of blessing, Mount Gerizim, and a mountain of curses, Mount Ebal. Why does he associate blessings and curses with different mountains? The Torah, which privileges the unseen over the seen and hearing over sight, is too sophisticated to have a physical place of goodness and one of badness. But God knows us well. He knows that people have a remarkable capacity to either mischaracterize or justify cursed ideas and actions. He is encouraging us — enough with that, you can tell the difference between a blessing and a curse as easily as you can between two mountains.
And the consequence of our choice of blessing or curse is everything. The listing of blessings is a catalog of delight. The curses include drought and floods, military defeat, robbery, madness and blindness, fever, lesions, and marriage followed by infidelity. Then there is: “You will grope at noontime as a blind man gropes in the darkness.”
What could this mean?
The experience of being blind is one of perpetual darkness. There is no difference for the blind between “noontime” and the dead of night. Why, then, would a curse be that of a blind person groping in the darkness?
Rabbi Yossi Bar Halafta stated, as is recorded in the Talmud, that he spent his entire life troubled by this verse. Then he saw a blind man walking at night and holding a torch. He asked the blind man why, given that he couldn’t see, he was carrying a torch.
The blind man answered, “So long as I carry this torch, other people can see me and they can save me from the pits and thorns and thistles.”
In a good community, a blind man never has to grope. There are always people around, by natural or artificial light, who will identify his suffering and seek to diminish it. A community is Biblically cursed when suffering goes unnoticed, unrelieved, and unredeemed. An individual is cursed when he has to suffer in silence.
There is nothing theoretical, anachronistic, or necessarily ancient about this curse or anything else in the Bible. The Torah is our great guidebook, specifically designed “for [our] benefit” — to help us live better today. Life expectancy in the United States has declined three years in a row (and that is pre-COVID-19) and is nowhere near the global top 50. This is a consequence, as numerous studies in the past several years have demonstrated, of the “deaths [or ‘diseases’] of despair” that afflict people in a state of loneliness, hopelessness, and desperation.
On the other hand is what my wife Rabbi Erica Gerson and I have seen at the Evangelical churches where we have spoken in the past couple of years: tissues in front of every pew, and often blankets in the front. Their purpose: to provide relief to those for whom the existential confrontations of worship bring pain in the moment, and subsequently an infrastructure of volunteers to begin the hard work of helping the congregant through the issue. This is the antidote to the curse of Deuteronomy 28:29 — a community where every person’s pain can be voiced, validated, and eased.
As we look around our communities and perform our own existential contemplation on Yom Kippur, Moses gives us the question to ask: Who might be the blind man suffering at noontime? The aforementioned American life expectancy statistics suggest that he is ubiquitous — and the Talmud suggests a way to help. If one is suffering in silence (emotionally, physically, spiritually, psychologically), like the blind man groping at noontime, he is in such a prison. A prisoner, the Talmud teaches, cannot free himself from prison.
So we can ask: Am I sufficiently helping to ensure that my communities are those where a blind man would never need to grope at noontime? Or am I the blind man groping at noontime who should seek the guidance that a Biblically construed community will provide? What, per Deuteronomy 21, are the structures and measures of accountability that ensure that each member of the community is provided the recognition, dignity, and focused support that such acknowledgment confers? In answering that question, we just might be able to turn a curse into a blessing.
Mark Gerson is co-founder of African Mission Healthcare and co-founder and Chairman of United Hatzalah of Israel.