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Letter 52 | American Values Religious Voices

Letter 52

DAY 52

Aaron Koller

Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Yeshiva University
March 12, 2021

Dear President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Members of the 117th Congress,

You have the imperative and daunting task of healing a nation wounded by a pandemic, by tribalism, by a new world order leaving so many of us behind. Our great country is founded on ideals that have been a beacon to the world and a guiding light for our own nation. How can we heal and make sure that light continues to shine brightly?

A rabbinic text about how to respond when encountering a beggar on the street—for many of us, an all-too-common occurrence—offers an answer. Leviticus Rabbah 34:7 teaches that the first thing to do is to listen carefully to what the poor person says. The midrash imagines such an individual crying out: “Look at me! Look at what I was, and look at what I am now.”

“…the act of looking…is central to the practice of charity.”

It is so natural to avert one’s eyes from someone on the subway or sidewalk asking for money. But the act of looking—simply observing that this is a person before me—is central to the practice of charity. Looking at the face of a person in need means grappling with that individual’s personhood. This decenters our sense of the world, which can be disconcerting.

But this looking—this seeing the eyes, this recognition of the humanity of the person in front of us—is also the beginning of all empathy, the beginning of all ethics, the beginning of all understanding.

So this is what we, the nation, ask of you, our leaders: Look at us. See us for who we are, for who we were, and for who we can be. See us as individuals, as a collective, as similar and different. Do not see us as voters, but as people. And think of those millions of faces, those 700 million individual eyes upon you, as you make decisions that will affect us all. Look at us, as we look to you.

Sincerely,

Aaron Koller

Dr. Aaron Koller
Professor of Near Eastern Studies
Yeshiva University

the author

Aaron Koller is Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Yeshiva University, where he studies Semitic languages. He is the author of Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought (JPS/University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014), among other books, and the editor of five more. Aaron has served as a visiting professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and held research fellowships at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research and the Hartman Institute.