This kind of insecurity is nothing new. This week’s Torah portion tells the story of the 12 spies whom Moses sent to scout out the Promised Land. Ten of them came back and reported that, while the place itself looked pretty good, the people there were enormous and frightening: “…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we looked in their eyes.” (Numbers 13:33).
The obvious question is, how did they know what the people thought of them? And the answer is, they didn’t. They projected their own fears and insecurities onto the others.
We do this all the time. “Oh no, I can’t ask for that, he’d never say yes,” says someone about seeking another’s help. “I don’t need to ask her opinion, I know exactly what she’ll say,” says another about his boss.
We’re so busy deciding what someone else thinks that we don’t bother to find out if we’re correct. We simply assume. The result is confusion and misunderstanding.
I’ve written before about the fact that we use words related to sight when we talk about understanding. The problem with relying on vision is that it doesn’t lend itself to insight. Ask any magician; they know that simple tricks of misdirection can make people believe they’ve seen the impossible. Seeing might be believing, but it isn’t always knowing or understanding.
There is a midrash that imagines God rebuking the spies, saying, “How do you know how I made you look to them? Perhaps you appeared to them as angels!”
I love that. It goes to the heart of the problem, because when we guess, we assume that the response will be in the negative. And yes, sometimes a person’s feelings, beliefs, and intentions are indeed negative. But not always.
Despite living in the so-called information age, we spend our lives in a fog of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and missed opportunities. Judaism asks us to go beyond guessing, to open our eyes and our hearts.
When we cease to presume that we understand someone, we give ourselves the opportunity to ask what they think, and listen to their answers. We can create bridges to understanding, between individuals and between peoples. And that, I believe, is the path to peace.