In the Eye of the Beholder?


By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

What makes a photograph museum worthy?

What is it about the photographer’s eye that allows him to take a memorable shot?  After D-Day, tens of thousands arrived in New York, but only one captured image defines the moment.  The horrors of war are beyond counting, yet a single searing image of a child suffering the agony of napalm bombing still causes us to recoil decades after Vietnam.  Millions of eyes and camera lenses were tracking the rise of the Challenger spacecraft when it exploded.  Only one image, with its distinctive contrails of smoke, takes us back to that terrible moment.

Certainly, a great photographer has to be “lucky”.  That is, he has to be in the right place at the right time to capture a particular shot.  But certainly there is more than a good eye than mere luck.  The photographers who captured the images I noted had to not only be “lucky” but they had to be alert to the potential of the moment.  They needed courage, courage to “see” what others were merely “looking at”.  They need perspective and the ability to balance all the aspects of the composition of the image – light, shape, content.  And they need empathy, to somehow feel what the subject of their photograph feels even if, ironically, the subject is an inanimate object!

Ultimately, a good eye is the ability to see what others do not see.

* * *

A good eye is essential in great photography.  It is no less vital in our daily lives.  As noted in Pirkei Avot (5:19) “Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Balaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul…”

A good eye allows one to distinguish between good and evil.  In Tazria we are confronted with the varieties of tzaraas afflictions, all of which are physical manifestations of a spiritual malaise, all a means of prodding the afflicted to mend his ways. The primary cause of tzaraas is the sin of slander – “metzora” is a contraction of motzi ra, one who spreads slander.  Further, we learn in the Talmud that tzaraas is an affliction for the sins of bloodshed, false oaths, pride, robbery and selfishness.  A common thread runs through these many causes of tzaraas.  In each, it is the offender’s failure to feel, share and be sensitive to the needs of others.  In other words, the offender is anti-social.  By definition, he holds himself superior to others and, as a result, when he is punished he is isolated and removed from the community so he should experience the type of pain he imposed on others.

In the latter part of the parsha we confront the tzaraas that afflict clothing.  We see the Kohen look at the garment after it was washed only to find that the affliction has not changed its color.  “The Kohen shall look after the affliction has been washed, and behold! The affliction has not changed its color [v’hinei lo hafach ha’nega et eino] and the affliction has not spread, it is contaminated, you shall burn it in fire; it is a penetrating affliction in his worn garment or in his new garment” (Vayikra 13:55) What an odd formulation indeed – the nega/affliction has not changed its color!  The word eino means, literally, “eye”.  This understanding does little to help us appreciate the formulation.  It might make it more opaque!  Only when we consider it in terms of a “good eye” does it begin to make sense.

The verse is telling us that the color of the nega has not lost its intensity, even if it has not grown in size, it is tamei.  But what is the eino, the “eye” teaching us?

* * *

In the Talmud (Ayrachin), the causes of tzaraas – slander and gossip, along with the failures to be sensitive to the needs of others through pride, robbery, selfishness – are attributed to “al tzoras ha’ayin”, narrowness of the eye.  Such narrowness speaks to the difficulty one has in finding the good in anyone or anything else.  A person with such an affliction always sees the negative, always sees the evil.  He is blind to generosity of spirit and goodness.  Such a narrowness places oneself first and all else as secondary and lesser.  It is a narrowness that begins and ends with “Me, myself and I”.

Tzoras ayin causes tzaraas.  The only healing, the only remedy for such an affliction is to find one’s way from having a “narrow eye” to a “good eye”, an ayin tov.  To come to realize and embrace that, just as the case with a great photographer, “luck” has little to do with seeing the remarkable moments of a life because remarkable moments are always.  We only need eyes to see them!

There are always opportunities to rejoice in the success of others and to enjoy the well-being of another.  The task is to embrace those opportunities.

One becomes a metzora due to a narrow eye. The only “medicine” that can heal such an affliction is to change one’s eye.  Until lo hafach ha’nega et eino – as long as your eye has not changed – as long as one’s narrowness of spirit remains, there can be no healing, no teshuva.

In classic Chassidic spirit, the Chidushei HaRim notes that nega and oneg (pleasure) are formed of the same three letters (nun, gimel, ayin).  The only difference between them is the placement of the ayin.  The only difference between affliction and joy is the placement of the eye!

It depends on how you see things! It depends on how you see others, their needs, accomplishments, views!

To heal ourselves of tzaraas, particularly in relation to selfishness, pride and slander, we must embrace clarity, integrity and honesty.  In Negaim, the Mishna teaches that, “negaim cannot be properly examined on a cloudy day.”  Likewise, a “Kohen who is blind in one of his eyes, cannot be used to examine the negaiim.”   This lesson is derived from the verse, L’chol mareh einei ha’Kohen – to all that the eyes of the Kohen see.  To heal the affliction of tzaraas one must see clearly and fully, without any hesitation or doubt.  Such healing cannot be done “halfway” or when one is “blind in one eye.”

Abraham is our best example of one who has an ayin tov.  As such, we are called to be his disciples and not the disciples of Balaam.  We each decide who to follow.  If we are ready and eager to see all with the same good, positive, generous feeling then our ayin creates oneg – pleasure for all…

If we remain haughty, selfish and self-centered, then our ayin is narrow and the result is a miserable nega.