You may be familiar with the stories of Moses’ childhood. Well, then, did you realize that twelve woman appear in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus? I didn’t, and neither did blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon at first. Rabbi Sharon writes that, with a moment or two of thought, he can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory (which is better than I can do!). But he had never noticed these several women at the beginning of Exodus.
I looked at the chapters and thought: What twelve women? But they're all there: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15).
Rabbi Sharon’s point is that, just as we may not notice people in a text when we read too quickly, we tend not to notice each other because we're too busy with other things. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and also the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17). (Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, is broken now but I accessed it in 2008 at http://www.moreshetyisrael.org/2005_01_01_archive.html)
I’m still thinking about that. A few years ago I noticed a certain obituary in my local paper. I lived in a community of about 200,000, small enough to run into people you know, but too large to “know everyone,” as is true in smaller towns. The obituary was a man who worked at a grocery store where I shop occasionally; I’d noticed him collecting shopping carts. He wasn’t very old when he died: mid-fifties. I never spoke to him besides a hello.
I thought about how many people I pass each day who are just “hello” people: always there, sometimes acknowledged, and nameless. I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.
John 9 has a story about the man born blind. It’s a familiar story. Jesus heals him, and the rest of the chapter is exchange between the man and the religious leaders who can’t believe he was healed. Their stubborn incredulity is a kind of syllogism: Jesus is a sinner (because he heals on the Sabbath), but God would not empower a miracle through a sinful man, and so Jesus could not have performed the miracle. The religious leaders are stuck in a way that many of us are stuck from time to time: something happens contrary to our expectations and preconceived notions, and we can’t see it or make the mental jump to acceptance.
Have you ever noticed the crowd’s reaction to the healed man? “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story can be found in Acts 3. The man born lame seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)
An indispensable outcome of Bible study is the compassion and kindness that makes us notice one another and care about each other’s pain. Bible reading is interesting and uplifting but if it doesn't help us grow in love, I think we're merely spinning our wheels spiritually. It can be a difficult journey, but we need to be able not to avoid certain kinds of people but to look at them, make human contact with them, set aside our personal pressing concerns for a moment, and inquire about their needs.