Peripheral vision

What do we see? What do we notice? To some extent, we see or notice that which we look for. What we will observe depends in part on where we are looking. If we focus only on ourselves all we will see is ourselves. When we make a point of looking out for others, we will take in a whole different dimension. When, as Psalms (40:26) recommends, we 'raise our eyes Heavenwards', we view a vast firmament. The drunkard who stares into his bottle sees a world of spirits. Both are right in a way, but one perspective is far broader than the other.

Many of the entries in this A-Z focus on ways to act kindly and fairly with others. But a Jewish Social Values recognises that that can still represent a narrow horizon, focusing on maintaining a good relationship with merely 'our own' limited circle of acquaintances. Constricting our kindness to friends is a stunted form of compassion. The Bible (Leviticus 11:19) lists among the non-kosher birds the stork, called a Chassida, which means 'kind one' in Hebrew. Says the Talmud (Chullin 63a): It is called Chassida because it is kind to its near ones. The question is asked: if it is a kind bird, why then is it considered non-kosher? The answer (Daat Chachamim, Peninei HaChassidut) is that a kosher bird would be kind with everyone, not only with those close to it! A truly compassionate individual not only behaves with sensitivity towards family and friends, but also has a finely attuned antenna to pick up on the needs of those at the periphery, those on the margins, who often go unnoticed.

Often the negative consequences of our actions go unnoticed because they are outside of our normal range of awareness. Similarly, we often fail to offer the help vitally needed, because it is not found in the places we normally look. Becoming a truly moral person and society requires the enhancing of our peripheral vision. Not realising that our actions are insensitive does not reduce the harm they cause, as Kippling D. Williams explains:

Ostracism does not have to be punitive or deliberate. It can be, using the terminology of Williams's model of ostracism, oblivious ostracism. When a waiter approaches the table and fills glasses with water, no one acknowledges his existence. They are also not out to punish him. Is this a problem for the waiter? Maybe, but probably not too much of one. On the other hand, consider the case of an undergraduate who attends a party that consists predominantly of graduate students and faculty. She floats around the party as if she were invisible; no one pays any attention to her, even when she puts herself into the middle of an interacting group. Are they intentionally ignoring and excluding her? Probably not. Does it matter? Yes, it probably does matter—it makes her feel worthless and invisible, and like a nonentity.

Lack of awareness is rarely a reasonable defence in Jewish law. Unintentional damage must still be paid for (Bava Kama 26a; Shulchan Aruch 421:3-4); unintentional taking of life is considered manslaughter. A person is expected to maintain awareness of what's going on around one's self. Similarly, we are expected to hold a wider purview of those around us and what their needs are.

A story is told about a rabbi who was approached by a poor person before Passover asking whether milk was suitable for the traditional four cups of wine. The rabbi explained that it was not and gave the person a large sum of money. His attendant asked why is was necessary to give some a large amount, as wine would have cost much less. Explained the rabbi: "If he was asking to use milk evidently he could not afford meat for his meal, so I gave him money for meat as well." The rabbi in this story could have sufficed himself with addressing the matter at hand, but instead he took a broader view of the situation. It is not sufficient to deal with the immediate situation we are confronted with; we need also to recognise the wider issues that may be out of view. In a similar vein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe highlighted concern for the Fifth Son who does not even come to the seder (Igrot Kodesh Vol. 15 pp. 33-37).