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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A good eye vs. tunnel vision / Sotah 38b

We all want to think of ourselves as good people. But what does it mean to be truly good? Does it mean to perform the minimum prescribed, or to look beyond the minimum? The Talmud uses two graphic terms to describe a person with a kind and generous spirit, and one who is greedy and selfish. One who possesses an ayin tov (“a good eye”) is generous. One who is tzarei ayin quite literally has a “narrow vision” or tunnel vision: he sees only what’s in it for himself.

The Talmud introduces this discussion with a teaching concerning who may lead Birkat haMazon (grace after meals):
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: We give the cup of blessing for the recital of Birkat haMazon (the grace after meals) only to one who is of a good eye (i.e. generous disposition), as it is said: The generous man (tov ayin) is blessed (yevorach), for he gives of his bread to the poor (Proverbs 22:9). Do not read yevorach (“shall be blessed”) but rather yevareich (“he will bless”).
Only a person of generous spirit is suitable to lead Birkat haMazon, R. Yehoshua b. Levi claims, because yevorach (blessed) in Proverbs 22:9 can be read yevareich (he will bless): “The generous man will bless.” But is the extent of his meaning? Or is R. Yehoshua b. Levi suggesting more? Perhaps he is teaching us that when we approach others with a generous, giving, and loving spirit, the ultimate reward is not that we will be blessed by God, but rather than we, in our generosity, will bless others. And if we consider that a greater reward, then surely we will continue to be generous and bless one another more and more. What a marvelous self-sustaining system of generosity and blessing!

The Rabbis then explore what it means to have an ayin tov (a generous spirit). First they warn us about selfish people, who may at times appear generous, are merely spreading their net for personal gain:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: Whence do we know that even birds recognize those who have a narrow eye (i.e. selfish spirit)? As it is said: For in vain is the net spread in the eyes of any bird (Proverbs 1:17). R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: Whoever accepts the hospitality of greedy people of selfish spirit transgresses a prohibition, as it is said, Do not eat the bread of one that has an evil eye, [neither desire his dainties]. For as he reckons within himself; so is he; eat and drink, he says to you, [but his heart is not with you] (Proverbs 23:6, 7). R. Nachman b. Yitzhak said: He transgresses two prohibitions, “Do not eat” and “Do not desire.”
We should avoid such people, because we will be used by them.

What, then, constitutes genuine generosity of spirit? The Rabbis choose what at first seems a most surprising case to explore:
R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: [The necessity for] the heifer whose neck is to be broken [see Deuteronomy 21:1-9] only arises on account of those of greedy spirit, as it is said: Our hands have not shed this blood (Deuteronomy 21:7). But can it enter our minds that the elders of a court of justice are shedders of blood?! The meaning is, [it was] not [the case that the man found dead] came to us for help and we dismissed him, nor did we did see him and leave him be; [it was] not [the case that] he came to us for help and we let him go without supplying him with food, nor did we see him and let him go without escort.
The Rabbis present the case of the egla arufah, the heifer whose neck is broken as expiation for an unsolved murder. If the victim’s body is found between two cities and it is not known who committed the murder, the elders of the two nearest cities gather around and stage an unusual ceremony in which they disavow knowledge of, and responsibility for the murder, and then break the neck of the heifer as expiation for the life that was taken. Yet is this sufficient? Does this ceremony – after the fact of the murder – suffice to consider them people of ayin tov (generous spirit)?

For the Rabbis, simply disavowing responsibility is far from exhibiting a generous spirit. In fact, the formulaic disavowal provided by Torah inspires the question: could we possibly think that the elders themselves murdered this poor man? Of course not! Rather, they must have done far more than merely not have been involved in the commission of murder. They must mean by their recitation that they did not fail to be generous, accommodating, and hospitable to the man before this terrible murder occurred. Their disavowal must mean that they did not deny him help, they did not fail to provide him food, and even that they did not knowingly allow him to go off without an escort. Their avowal must mean that did everything in their power to help and protect him and prevent the murder that nonetheless ensued.

How often do we do the bare minimum and then pat ourselves on the back because we’ve done what was required?

We are left with the clear message that to possess a tzarei ayin (selfish spirit) is as the Hebrew term implies: to have a narrow vision, or tunnel vision, concerning what we owe one another. Those who have a tzarei ayin limit their vision to the bare minimum requirements of what they must do for others. But those who possess an ayin tov (a generous spirit) reach well beyond the minimum and think not only of what they are obligated to do, but what others truly need. They are more than blessed by God; they bless others, which our Rabbis want us to understand is even greater.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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