Shabbat Pinchas 5780 – the room where it happens – Student Rabbi Deborah Blausten

If a tree falls in a forest, and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a sound?

This question is one of my favourites to explore with teens, because at first it seems so simple, of course the tree makes a sound. That’s what large sold objects do when they fall from a height. They thud to the ground, accompanied by the snapping sound of branches and twigs that are broken on the way down.

But how do we know it makes a sound, if there is no ear to hear it?

Scientific American explains:

“Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”

So the answer goes, the tree makes vibrations, it displaces air, but those vibrations are only sounds when you have the right equipment to interpret them. When there are no human or animal ears around, then arguably, there is no sound.

And if there was no sound, how would we know that the tree had fallen?

Likely, the answer would come from those who discover the fallen tree. It would be up to them to deduce from the tree’s situation, from previous knowledge and experience of what happens to trees, and their own sense of what is likely to be the case. All of those assumptions would be limited by their experiences and by their own knowledge.

The falling tree raises the question of the unseen- how do we make sense of moments in time or of situations that are beyond our view? If we don’t see something, or hear it, what do we bring to the table when trying to understand what has occurred?

When a moment is heard, there is less room for guessing, there’s more chance that the account someone gives might be faithful to the moment in time. When things aren’t seen or heard by others, we rely on our own interpretations of what is left after this moment.

We just assume that it happens, sings Aaron Burr in Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. Left out of the room where the famous ‘dinner table bargain’, that led to a compromise between Thomas Jeferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, is made, all Burr has to go on is the results he observes. A win for the southerners with the capital in Washington DC, a win for the northern states as the treasury absorbs state debts.

But, he sings:

No one really knows how the
Parties get to yes
The pieces that are sacrificed in
Ev’ry game of chess
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in the room where it happens.

We just assume that it happens. And assumptions are tricky beasts.

This week, two team GB athletes were stopped by police driving home with their infant child in the car. The police said they were suspicious because the car had tinted windows. The situation rapidly escalated despite the sprinter’s engagement with what they were asked by the officers, ending with both parents distressed and confused and handcuffed for 45 minutes before being let go without any further proceedings. We know what happened, because Bianca Williams filmed the whole incident. But how different would it have been if there was no camera? What would we assume had happened? The met police has subsequently referred itself to the independent watchdog over the incident amid claims of racial profiling and renewed discussion of the stop and search criteria. The police commissioner has apologised, politicians from both sides of the house have expressed outrage and sadness, but would this have happened without the video?

In a situation like this, where there is a clear power dynamic, whose story would be believed? What assumptions might those hearing the story make about what led to the stop and search? In the absence of footage, would we be more likely to believe the grounds for stopping were justified?

Across the world, this question is a live one. How do we deal with unwitnessed moments? It’s what makes so many kinds of assault, abuse, and other violations of others through the abuse of power so difficult to challenge. The tree fell, but it wasn’t pushed, it tripped… It’s one word against the other, and when the tree falls and there are no ears to hear it, we rely on our personal experience, the expectations laid out for us by society, and the authority of those in power, to help judge the moment.

When the Israelites are faced by Moses who professes to be their redeemer, they have no tools to judge the moment. They weren’t there at the burning bush, they saw his signs and wonders and had to make sense of what they saw- and what they were told had happened but couldn’t see.

According to Exodus Rabbah, what made them believe that Moses was indeed their redeemer was a sign that Asher, the son of Jacob, had told his daughter, Serach. First listed in the book of Genesis as one of the 70 members of Jacob’s family who went to Egypt, she is still alive in our Torah portion today, listed in numbers 26 in the census of the Israelites following a plague. That means she has survived more than 100 years of slavery, exodus and wandering, and she is able to bear witness to something that none of the others could imagine. In this case, she tells the Israelites the words they need to hear, and so when Moses says the words to the people, they know he is their redeemer.

Serach is only mentioned twice in Torah. This morning’s portion, and in Genesis, and yet Rabbi Jill Hammer notes that the rabbis create a whole life for her. Not only does she play a vital role in ensuring Moses is able to take his place as leader, according to Talmud and Midrash she is also the one who tells Moses where Joseph’s bones are buried in the river Nile; after all, she was there when it happened. She was also there at the crossing of the red sea, and so Mekhilta imagines a moment where Rav Yochanan, an important sage, was sitting hundreds of years later and preaching to his students about the exodus. He describes the water of the sea as appearing to the Israelites like bushes, at which point Serach pops her head around the corner of the study house and says “I was there, and it didn’t look like that at all. It looked like bright windows (or mirrors).”

Jill Hammer says:
“The character of Serach is a triumph of irony. She is entirely invented by the sages but they use her to keep them honest, allowing her to correct them when they get too far off track in their creative storytelling. When they spin fanciful tales, Serach rises up to say: I was there! Serach reminds us to listen to the witnesses to history. In fact, she becomes the keeper of all secrets lost by time…

…The rabbis felt the need to create for themselves someone who could declare, “I was there, I was there when it happened”.
She is a symbol of the importance of having a witness, of finding a way to see into a moment, and the challenge of leaving it up to the people who arrive on the scene later to deduce what has occurred.

And yet, as Hammer reminds us the Serach of the rabbi’s imagination isn’t real. And so, how do we face the kinds of problems our ancestors invented her to solve?

Distressing moments like the one Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos experienced this week might offer a partial answer. In that moment, and in others when later stories and images emerge that contradict the initial story told, or that which was assumed to have happened, those of us hearing the story are offered the chance to confront our own pre-judgements. Seeing both the partial and then fuller picture can alert us to the biases and the blind-spots that might limit our ability to really understand what we are being told. They give each of us the chance to reflect on our own responses.

Serach is a counterfoil, she’s a check on unchecked power, on the ability to make claims and have them believed, and to deny truth when it’s right in front of you asking to be heard. Without her, it’s up to us to notice the ways that we judge moments we didn’t see for ourselves. It may be true that a tree doesn’t make a sound if there are no ears to hear it, but that shouldn’t stop us learning more about why trees fall. Then, we might find that it’s surprising what you can catch vibrating in the air, if only you train your ears, and eyes, to listen, to watch, and to bear witness.

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