I stood in that room for a long time, watching the sunlight and listening to the sounds on the street outside. I stood there, tasting the room and the sunlight and the sounds, and thinking of the long hospital ward. . . . I wondered if little Mickey had ever seen sunlight come though the windows of a front room apartment. . . . Somehow everything had changed. I had spent five days in a hospital and the world around seemed sharpened now and pulsing with life.
This passage occurs in Chapter 5, after Reuven has returned home from the hospital. His eye accident and brush with blindness taught him about the fragility of his senses. In this passage, Reuven shows he has developed a deep appreciation for the gift of perception as he describes “watching,” “listening to,” and “tasting” the world around him.
Not only has Reuven’s accident heightened his physical awareness of the world around him; it has also heightened his perception of the world’s suffering and complexity. In the hospital, he encountered people in painful and cruel situations. Displaying a new sense of empathy and compassion, Reuven worries about Mickey, the boy who has been in the hospital his whole life. Reuven’s eyes have been opened to the injustice and suffering in the world. As a result, Reuven appreciates the quality of his own circumstances—of his sunny apartment—which are superior to those of the dingy hospital ward. Throughout the novel, Potok portrays the development of compassion for the suffering of others as a crucial element of maturity.
Reuven also first meets Danny when Danny visits him in the hospital, and Reuven’s conversations with Danny are equally important to Reuven’s heightened awareness of the world. Danny contributes to Reuven’s improved sense of perception by defying all of Reuven’s preconceived assumptions about Hasidic Judaism. Reuven’s focus on his physical senses in this passage also emphasizes the importance of looking deeper than a first glance. In order to show how Reuven’s way of seeing others has changed, Potok stresses the way Reuven’s apartment, something he has known all his life, seems a new place. In this passage, Reuven reveals the after-effects of his hospital experience: his perception, on all levels, has been broadened and deepened by his accident, by the suffering he witnesses, and by his interaction with Danny Saunders.
“We are commanded to study His Torah! We are commanded to sit in the light of the Presence! It is for this that we were created! . . . Not the world, but the people of Israel!”
In this passage, taken from Reb Saunders’s inflammatory speech in Chapter 7, Reb Saunders expresses his feelings about what it means for Jews to be the “Chosen People” by comparing their duties to those of non-Jews. To be a Jew, he argues, is to accept a destiny and a set of responsibilities that Jews receive by virtue of their birth. By dismissing the non-Jewish world around him, Reb Saunders implies that a truly faithful Jew should retreat to an exclusively Jewish community, immerse himself in Jewish study, and pay little attention to anything in the outside world. For Reb Saunders, “the world”—anything beyond the boundaries of his community, any literature beyond the boundaries of conservative Jewish tradition—is base. Even when world events overlap with Jewish concerns—such as the horrible discovery of the slaughter of European Jews in the Holocaust—Reb Saunders chooses to focus inward, on his own community, and on his own sense of suffering.
However, Reb Saunders’s definition of the obligations of Jews seems to shift by the end of the novel. His acceptance of Danny’s decision to become a professional psychologist suggests that he recognizes one can maintain ties with the outside world and be observant of one’s faith.
“What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? … I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. . . .”
Explaining his relentless Zionist activism, David Malter speaks these words to Reuven in Chapter 13. In this complex passage, Potok ties together several thematic elements. David Malter emphasizes the prevalence of suffering, then explains that awareness of the world’s suffering makes a person empathize with others and therefore appreciate all life and every detail of God’s creation. His point is that although we may believe “the blink of an eye is nothing,” we should appreciate the eye’s mere existence, and the blink’s mere existence. It is significant that David Malter uses the eye as an image in making his point. Potok intersperses eye imagery throughout The Chosen to symbolize perception of the world and of one’s own soul. Furthermore, David Malter’s description of observing the eye implies that perception is a reciprocal, two-way process. In David Malter’s opinion, deeper appreciation of life leads to a sense of obligation to fill one’s life with meaning and make the world a better place.
The passage also contrasts with Reb Saunders’s diatribe in Chapter 7, excerpted in the quotation above. The differences between the two passages point to the differences between the two fathers. Unlike Reb Saunders, David Malter speaks in a gentle tone, explaining rather than proclaiming. David Malter’s tone is that of a sympathetic teacher rather than a harsh leader. Whereas Reb Saunders argues for Jews to retreat passively into study and believes that meaning is given to life at birth, David Malter believes life is not given meaning at birth. He argues that a person fills life with meaning along the way. Whereas Reb Saunders suggests that Jews are passively chosen for duty, David Malter believes that Jews have an obligation to actively choose a noble path and to make a difference in the world.
“[My father] taught me with silence. . .to look into myself, to find my own strength, to walk around inside myself in company with my soul. . . . One learns of the pain of others by suffering one’s own pain … by turning inside oneself. . . . It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.”
Using Reuven as an intermediary, Reb Saunders speaks these words to Danny in Chapter 18. In his speech, Reb Saunders finally reveals his reasons for imposing silence upon Danny for so many years. Up to this point, Reuven has tacitly assumed that Reb Saunders’s silence was a cruel punishment that reflected emotional distance and a lack of love. Here, Reb Saunders explains that his silence has very noble, loving intentions: he wanted Danny to find his own soul.
We see that silence, as Reb Saunders intended it, functions very similarly to Reuven’s experience in the hospital. After his eye accident, Reuven developed a heightened appreciation for his physical senses. Furthermore, after witnessing the suffering of others, Reuven developed a sense of empathy for others. His experience was painful but life-changing. Reb Saunders describes the experience of being raised in silence along similar lines. Silence, he argues, engenders introspection, creates humility and empathy, deepens one’s appreciation for life, and affirms one’s sense of commitment to others and to God.
“We shook hands and I watched him walk quickly away, tall, lean, bent forward with eagerness and hungry for the future, his metal capped shoes tapping against the sidewalk. Then he turned into Lee Avenue and was gone.”
This farewell scene is the final passage of The Chosen. Danny is about to leave the neighborhood to attend graduate school, and by ending with an emphasis on the fact that Danny “was gone,” Reuven reminds us that Danny is leaving, finally, the boundaries of his community. Danny has rejected the destiny that was chosen for him and has chosen his own path instead.
Because Reuven emphasizes his subjective perception of Danny’s departure, the passage is as much about Reuven as about Danny. Reuven mentions four of his senses in this description: touch (shaking hands), vision (watching Danny walk away), taste (“hungry for the future”), and hearing (Danny’s shoes tapping). This emphasis on all types of perception underscores the way Reuven is not only acutely aware of the world around him, he also experiences the world in multiple ways. This multisensory perspective reflects the way Reuven’s perception has broadened as a result of his friendship with Danny—just as Danny’s has deepened as result of his friendship with Reuven.
When reading The Chosen, we are tempted to see Danny’s conflict with his father as the only significant aspect of the novel. Yet Reuven is an equally significant character, and it is important to notice the way he too develops. The central story of The Chosen is not the story of Danny and his father, but the story of two friends and how they affect each other’s lives. For this reason, Potok closes the novel by emphasizing Danny and Reuven’s friendship and, through his emphasis on senses and perception, demonstrating how their view of the world has changed.