It was still dark that morning, but my father was first in a growing line outside a government office in a small Lithuanian town. It was September 2nd, 1939 and Hitler had invaded Poland the previous morning. Possessing a neutral South African passport, my father hoped to cross Poland and Germany and reach sanctuary in Switzerland. While nobody knew when South Africa would join the Allies, my father knew it was a matter of days or perhaps hours, at which point escape from Lithuania would be impossible. As it turned out, South Africa declared war against Germany on September 4th.
When the office opened, my father anxiously placed his passport, literally a magic carpet to safety, on to the counter and took a seat to wait. Every subsequent Jewish person, equally desperate to escape Lithuania, placed his passport upon my father’s and sat down in the waiting room. When the official finally arrived to grant exit visas, he started with the top passport and called out the name of the applicant. With a sinking heart, my father realized that the official would never reach his passport way down at the bottom.
Suddenly the official stood up. Placing one of his hands beneath the tall pile and the other at the top, he crossed his arms and inverted the pile. Reaching for what was now the top document, he called my father’s name.
My father had arrived in Lithuania in 1932 to study at one of the great Torah academies of prewar Europe. For seven years he immersed himself in the study of Torah and sat at the feet of masters. It was to be more than five years after his escape before he discovered the tragic fate of most of his teachers and fellow students. A huge burial mound, covering a mass grave in what is today a city park, bears silent witness to the massacre of the Jewish population.
It was while traveling through Germany that his train paused to allow a Nazi march/rally to cross the tracks. He found himself entranced by the hypnotic effect of the lighting, the banners and flags, the marching, the uniforms and the music. Those Nazis proudly exhibited such confidence in their cause that he found himself drawn to the sight, even reluctantly admiring it. While this was long before anyone knew how murderous the Nazis would be, it was already abundantly clear that these were not nice people.
He subsequently told me many times that he wished he had never seen that Nazi rally. Looking at something or someone is the very beginning of a relationship. Have you ever watched visitors to the primate enclosure at a zoo? I spend about 30 seconds looking at the baboons and chimpanzees and ten or fifteen minutes watching visitors peering intently into the eyes of the beasts with desperate yearning to find connection. People often look into their dogs’ eyes seeking an emotional connection in the dog’s returned gaze. A man in a bar who spots an attractive woman will stare at her hoping she’ll look back and their eyes will meet. (Of course some guys quickly avert their gaze in embarrassment when she does look back which accomplishes nothing at all)
My father wished he’d never seen that Nazi rally because he knew that looking at something or someone is the first step in a relationship with that thing or person. Home Shopping Network is on television, not radio—eyes create connection and desire. When a man chooses to avoid looking intensely and admiringly at women other than his wife he is utilizing this principle of ancient Jewish wisdom. My father saw the Nazi march and therefore he felt slightly connected to them. Many people wouldn’t have had my father’s self-awareness even to know that they felt faintly attracted to that demonstration.
And this is one thing we are taught when the Bible uses the phrase “and he lifted up his eyes…” When you see something or someone and instead of averting your gaze you continue looking, you are establishing a connection.
And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of the Jordan…..
Then Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan….
Lot looked at the plain of the Jordan, connected with it and then not surprisingly, he chose it.
And he [Abraham] lifted his eyes and looked
and there were three men standing…and he ran to meet them…
Abraham looked at the three men and then ran to greet them.
And Jacob lifted his eyes and looked and behold Esau came…
And Esau ran to meet him and embraced him….
Jacob looked at Esau and a connection was made.
And it was while Joshua was in Jericho that he lifted up his eyes and looked and behold a man stood near him….And Joshua walked over to him and said….
Joshua doesn’t merely glance at a man. He deliberately looked at him. The next step was almost inevitable. He walked over to him and engaged the man in conversation.
It is worthwhile being both conscious and cautious about what we raise our eyes to see. We should know that the first step on any road to connection is via the eyes. If you don’t want to spend money, don’t go window shopping. If you don’t want a connection with a particular person, don’t allow your look to linger. Conversely, we can also use our eyes to establish positive connection. My father regretted having cast eyes upon that Nazi rally but he often spoke nostalgically of what it meant to him to have avidly watched his teachers every day for seven years. He described how inspired he felt by being able to see as well as hear the lectures from teachers who gave him a glimpse into the mind of God.
(Susan and I discussed another nuance of the phrase ‘lifting eyes’ on one of our Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV shows. If you want to pursue understanding this idea, you can find it HERE)