10 June 2013
Faces in the Crowd
In this light we're all so perfectly human. And by design, we're meant to see that essential humanness.
Evil, according to the Psalmist, is when God hides his face from man. Righteousness is expressed in being seen. "For the Eternal is righteous, he loves righteousness; the upright shall behold his face." And, "How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart by day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Behold thou and answer me, Eternal my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death."
Yesterday out walking with the dog, I encountered some neighbors, an elderly Asian couple walking their dogs. Usually we nod to one another in silence as our dogs explore each other's essentialness as lesser beasts. These are modest moments. But yesterday it seemed to last, so I broke the silence with words. The wrong ones. But the intent brought forgiveness.
"He's from Hong Kong," I began, mistakenly having assumed the couple to be Chinese. Oh, the exclaimed, how interesting. "Yes, a writer friend raised him in Hong Kong, brought him back to Brooklyn, and gave him to us. He's nearly 10 years old now." And then more silence.
"We're Japanese," they said, cracking a smile. A robin attached to a fence over my shoulder--it's chest puffed in anticipation of the worms the rain had brought.
"Oh," I pivoted. "And I'm an idiot. I'm terribly sorry." But then, to shamelessly save the moment, added, "I have recently begun a study of Japanese haiku. It's something I've always wanted to read as a complement to Psalms, which I love so much. I'm a rabbi."
My words like dried chestnuts,
crushed in pavement,
under car tires in autumn.
"My husband is one of the leading experts in haiku in North America," said his wife. And so he gave me masters to read and invited me to come visit him and learn more about them. "Basho's good. And Buson, and Issa." I nodded obediently. They were the three I had decided to begin with. We parted ways (our dogs had long moved on) and agreed to meet soon on the berm to continue the conversation.
What does it mean to meet a man and woman face to face? To look into their eyes, past appearance, and discover an essentialness that is beneath the surface? I thought of King David, beseeching God to show his face, to eradicate evil from the face of the earth. I thought of Levinas, daring us to see, in another's eyes, the Divine Image, the Radical Other of Existence, and the commandment "not to kill."
I returned home, grabbed my collection of haiku and went to Basho and felt a great laugh, deep from within, the laughter of recognition and truth:
Year after year
on the monkey's face
a monkey's face.
King David and Basho talking to each other. It will be a great summer.