Is seeing really believing?

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Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16.


While there is great truth to the phrase “seeing is believing,” we know that it is not a complete truth. For while it frequently takes witnessing something to integrate it into our psyche and believe in its authenticity, the belief doesn’t always kick in immediately. We see things and don’t believe them.

On the one hand, skepticism is a healthy and necessary tool in life. On the other hand, we too often see things that are true but our brains refuse to accept it.

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That’s what is happening in this week’s Torah portion. Pharaoh witnesses the awesome and terrible plagues and their impact on himself and his people with his own eyes. Yet it takes 10, each worse than the one before it, until he is convinced of the existence and might of the God of the Israelites.

In his commentary, Noam Elimelech, an 18th century rabbi and one of the founders of the chasidic movement, wrote that a tzaddik, a righteous person, would need to see such wonders of the Creator only once and be impressed, ecstatic and understand. A rasha (a bad guy like Pharaoh) would need to be told over and over, by a tzaddik (in this case, Moses), of God’s wonders and of God’s goodness, and even then would forget as time passes.
Such is the story in a nutshell of Moses, Pharaoh, the plagues, the release of the Israelite slaves and Pharaoh’s attempt to recapture them. Pharaoh believes for a moment and then denies reality once again.


This story is familiar not just because we tell it each year as part of the Torah reading cycle and then again at Passover.

It is familiar because the moral of the story represents a universal truth. Seeing is not always believing, at least not at first sight, even for good people. Along with sight we need to be convinced intellectually so that not only do we believe, but also remember that belief and lesson throughout our lives.

The parsha ends by introducing us to tefillin (phylacteries) (Exodus 13:9). We wear the leather boxes and straps on our heads and on our arms and hands. They contain words of Torah and serve as a physical reminder of our belief in God, of our beginnings as a people and of the need to remember the important things in life and to teach and act on them in each generation.

Abstract concepts such as the need for dignity, respect, acceptance and freedom cannot remain abstract if we remember and retell them on a regular basis. It is only when we live the lessons learned, when we become Noam Elimelech’s tzaddik and not only believe but also actuate these lessons in life, that the negatives of history will not be repeated.

Questions for discussion:

1.  Tefillin are the ultimate aide de memoire, having physical, intellectual and philosophical aspects to them. Can you think of any other items or activities that function in a similar way?

2. How does belief work in your life to shape the things that you do and are willing to go out of your way for? n

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of Olney Kehila and the interim rabbi of Riderwood Jewish Community in Silver Spring.

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