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Context Clues

04/25/2022 06:37:54 AM


by Rabbi Aaron Brusso

One of the more moving films I’ve seen recently features the story of a hearing child of deaf adults. The movie CODA, titled after the acronym made for those children, tells the story of how Ruby who hears functions as the bridge to the hearing world for her deaf parents and brothers. Because of their reliance on her she has had to grow up sooner than most and the movie pivots off of the tension that develops around the family’s dependence on her and her need to pursue her own interests and talents. And the talent she wants to pursue is singing, something her family can’t appreciate, not because they wouldn’t want to, but how could they?

The movie shows us in powerful ways how navigating the world differently leads to different experiences of what most of us tend to experience the same way.

There are two scenes in CODA in particular that have stayed with me. One of the obstacles Ruby faces is that she can’t explain to her family what she wants to do with her life because it involves something they have no way of experiencing. Or so we think. Ruby invites her parents and her brother to attend a concert she is performing in. When Ruby takes the stage her parents are excited to see her. We hear the applause, the shuffling of the feet on stage, people rustling in their chairs and then in an instant, the sound in the movie cuts out completely. All the action is still happening but we can’t hear anything. Suddenly we are in the same position her parents are in --  seeing it all, watching the people on the stage opening their mouths but not understanding what everyone else is experiencing. And then we see Ruby’s parents look around. They catch a woman crying. They see a man smiling. One by one by seeing the reactions on the faces of the people in the audience they experience the beauty and the joy their daughter is bringing to other people and they look at each other knowingly and smile.

The other scene, during which in full disclosure I totally lost it, Ruby’s dad signs to her that he wants to experience her voice. He tells her to sing. She doesn’t understand. He tells her to sing anyway. Then he lays one hand gently on her neck and then lays the other hand. As she sings he feels the variations of the vibrations and he smiles. Ruby, realizing her father is understanding her talent, begins to feel seen.

What Ruby’s parents do to understand her is a bit like how we train kids to use context clues to understand words they don’t know. There is direct perception of our world and then there is the way we use the known to better understand the unknown.

This is a powerful way we can come to understand and appreciate other people, the world and even God.

Recently in an adult class I have been facilitating on Faith, Trust, and Belief, I gave an example given to me by my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman about how we come to have a deeper understanding of the world. Rabbi Gillman says, imagine you are with a psychologist and you are watching children in a nursery school class. The psychologist asks, “Wow look at that child’s ego!” Rabbi Gillman explains that to most of us we would see children, blocks, toy cars, and dolls. But to the psychologist who is trained to pay attention to different kinds of patterns of behavior, he is seeing something even deeper. Taking clues from the knowns to intuit his way into the unknown.

We talked about how faith is about training ourselves to see context clues in the world for bigger truths and ideas like love, grace, mercy, compassion, justice. You can’t see these concepts directly, you can only know they are there by noticing patterns of behavior within a person or amongst many people. Those behaviors are more than mechanical, they point to larger meanings.

As we move from Passover to Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day to Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day we think of the spiritual concept of redemption.

Redemption is a powerful religious idea. The idea that in a world that seems to be cold, cruel, and careless, the pain and suffering that is happening is noticed by something, noticed by someone. The cry doesn’t dissipate into the vast sky but is received by something by someone who can hear it. Redemption is the ultimate validation of the human experience. That human beings matter to each other and to something beyond. And it can’t be transmitted by reading a story. It has to be lived into and experienced in order to be understood. It has to be awakened in us. It can’t be locked away in a story from long ago. We have to be challenged to see ourselves in every generation as having gone free and we have to see ourselves as the only ones in the position to champion that redemption for others.

The context clues are everywhere. The lines at the Mt Kisco food pantry. The humanitarian assistance at the border to Ukraine. The Israelis in Tel Aviv standing at a cafe that had been the sight of shooting the night before and singing hatikvah. Families in Northern Westchester helping Afghan refugees to start their lives over.

The story is not old and not someone else’s responsibility. Redemption is real. We have to train ourselves to see the patterns in the world, the context clues that communicate it. Only then can we realize that though we don’t hear the voices coming from the stage directly, one by one we can look around and see things that let us know something is happening. Something is happening in our world and we can not only experience it, we can make it happen anytime we want with our own hands.

Thu, June 1 2023 12 Sivan 5783