The Art of Observation: The Sorcerer’s Chameleon

Aug 20th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Spiritual Growth
There must never be found among you anyone who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, (or) and a sorcerer. (Deuteronomy 18:10)

A single witness may not testify against another person for any trespass or sin that he commits. A matter may be legally established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15)

The Grand Duchess Olga, sister of the last tsar, described Rasputin as “changeable as a chameleon”. Vera Zhukovskaya recalls: “When you remember that amazing peculiarity of his changing in an instant…sitting there would be a simple, illiterate little peasant, a bit crude, scratching himself, his tongue barely moving and the words slipping clumsily out…when suddenly he would turn into an inspired prophet…and then another bound of the changeling and his white teeth would be crunching with a savage, bestial voluptuousness, and from behind the heavy curtain of his wrinkles something shamelessly predatory would nod, unrestrained, like a young animal…and then just as suddenly instead of an ungirded rowdy, a grizzled Siberian wanderer would be sitting there, someone who for thirty years had been searching the world for God.”

The singer Belling, who saw Rasputin many times, writes of his rotten teeth and foul breath. Zhukovskaya tells us that “his teeth were perfect and complete down to the very last one, and his breath was absolutely fresh.” (The Rasputin File by Edvard Radzinsky)

I enjoy watching a magic show, a skillful use of sleight-of-hand. Unfortunately, chameleons such as Rasputin have often hurt me: people who can present themselves one way and immediately switch to another role. They are the more frightening sorcerers. They cause us to question our sanity and weaken our power of observation.

I imagine that most people have met such chameleons, yet we still do not learn to pay better attention to our power of observation. We are so accustomed to the sorcerers and chameleons that we fail to pay attention to the second verse quoted above: We are willing to accept the testimony of a single witness.

We believe a single witness who shares some juicy gossip with us. We do not question his or her power of observation. We do not even try to use ours when listening before passing judgment on the topic of the gossip. We may not even be sure that the gossiper is not a chameleon himself: People often speak poorly of others to make themselves look good. Isn’t that an essential tool of the chameleon?

Do we practice the sorcerer’s chameleon? Do we portray ourselves one way to some and in an entirely different way to others?

Do our powers of observation suffer when we practice the sorcerer’s chameleon?

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