The question in last week’s article, Abraham
Today, remains open: What should we do when we see two
people fighting in middle of Synagogue services? How would
Abraham react to such behavior?
The same question can be asked about any travesty that
we witness. Here is an example of one that occurred several
years ago: Sitting in a restaurant in New York City I noticed
a family eating at a table next to me. “How sweet,”
I thought, “a nice couple taking out their three children
on a beautiful night.” Until I noticed something very
disturbing: The father was berating his young child, maybe
9-10 year old, and suddenly gave him a resounding slap on
his face. I tried ignoring the scene and looked away, but
the obvious tension around me made that very difficult,
especially when the wife and husband began to argue. With
every ensuing outburst it became more and more obvious that
this was not an anomaly; we were dealing with a dysfunctional
family. It didn’t require any psychological training
to see that these children were living in an abusive environment
– with an angry father, and a weak, helpless mother.
The vibe was horrible. I could feel the bitterness, rage
and fear permeating the table near mine. I had no doubt
that these innocent children were subject to an ongoing
assault in their own home.
What to do? I simply could not tolerate sitting there just
blithely biting into another piece of steak (or whatever
delicacy was on my plate), indifferent to the pain being
heaped upon these vulnerable children.
Should I approach the father and speak with him? He certainly
would not welcome my gesture – a perfect stranger
intervening in his personal business. But should that even
matter? Should I sit by quietly while witnessing offensive
behavior? Or perhaps my meddling will only provoke him further,
taking it out on his family later? And after all, what can
I say to an abusive man in few mere minutes that will in
any way help him and his children? Then again, is that a
reason to just turn a blind eye fully cognizant of a crime
being perpetrated? Should I be speaking to the wife and
the children? Or alert authorities to the potential risk?
Is that even ethical when I have no proof? After all, I
did not know this family. I had no first hand knowledge
what their home life was like. Can I make a move simply
based on my instincts? On the other hand, perhaps I could
prevent some damage being done?
You see - this is far from simple.
What would you do?
What would Abraham do?
The same question can be asked about every form of inappropriate
behavior that we may witness: What is the right thing to
do – to intervene or not?
You witness a co-worker stealing money from your company?
Do you ignore him, report him or confront him? You know
that your neighbor is abusing his spouse. What action, if
any, should you take?
The Torah lays out various guidelines as to our responsibility
not to stand by silently and ignore the perpetration of
a crime, as well as warning others of potential danger.
We also have an obligation to reprimand a sinful person
– first privately and gently, and if that does not
help, publicly. But applying these rules requires a case-by-case
analysis. How, for instance, do these doctrines apply to
the restaurant incident? If your intervention will not help
solve, and possibly even exacerbate, the problem, do you
intervene? If you are not positive that a crime has been
committed, can you pass judgment? After all, there is a
due process that allows people the right of innocence until
proven guilty. Can you act based on your “sense”
that there is a serious problem?
I will share with you what I did in the Synagogue - after
stating a key principle, based on the Torah’s universal
values and its extraordinarily sensitive approach to dealing
with the human condition, epitomized by Abraham.
First and foremost, Abraham showed exceptional kindness
to everyone he encountered. Whether they were friends or
strangers, family or visitor, allies or foes. Abraham even
prayed for the infidels of Sodom.
The first thing Abraham did was open his home – his
tent was open on all four sides – welcoming guests
from whatever geographical or ideological direction they
came. The Talmud relates that after graciously feeding his
guests, he would ask them kindly to bless G-d for their
meal. If they refused, the Midrash adds, he would tell them
to pay for the food.
Abraham planted a tree in Beersheba, and there he called
in the name of G-d, Lord of the Universe (Genesis 21:33).
Resh Lakish said: Read not 'and he called' but 'and he made
to call', thereby teaching that our father Abraham caused
the Divine name to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by.
How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they
stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, 'Did you eat
of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the G-d of the
Universe. Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the
world came into being' (Talmud Soteh 10b)
The axiom then is that only through first loving your fellow
human being can you bring that person to love G-d. The best
way to help inspire someone to improve his or her ways is
by showing love to that person. Not as a gimmick or maneuver
to warm that person up so that you can rebuke him, but simply,
with genuine, sincere love – demonstrating that you
What really lays at the heart of the resistance anyone
has to hearing rebuke? Pride, fear of being judged, shame,
And conversely, what truly motivates us to try correcting
a wrongful situation? Often it may come from arrogance,
judgment, a sense of superiority and one-upmanship. It may
also be that you enjoy putting others down. If your words
of rebuke are condescending, rest assured that your words
will not have an effect.
If however the other person feels that your words are coming
from a heartfelt place, that you sincerely care about him,
then he may be open to hear what you have to say.
Too much criticism is showered on people with wrong or
ill intentions. For some strange reason, humans often enjoy
criticizing others – whether it comes from insecurity,
or makes them feel better about themselves, it’s just
an ugly trait that people are capable of.
The single most important prerequisite before intervening
in a travesty is your own selfless and loving attitude,
and your genuine concern about the situation.
With that in mind – and remembering the frightful fistfight
of my childhood – I approached the two people arguing, and
asked them permission to say something. Startled, they both
turned to me and asked what I wanted. Kindly, I stated that
when they have a free minute I would like to ask them something.
I guess due to the surprise, being caught unaware, or out
of simple courtesy, they stopped their argument and waited
for me to speak. All I said was this: “From a distance it
appeared that you are both long-time friends who are having
a dispute. And I was wondering if I can be of any assistance
in resolving the argument. The reason I ask is because I
and a few others are trying to pray, and your spat is disturbing
One of the two gentlemen aggressively replied: “What
we are talking about is none of your business.” Even
as he was saying the words I could see that the other man
was a bit ashamed, sheepishly withdrawing from the conversation.
Though I don’t believe that I resolved their problem, I
successfully diffused it for that moment. And who knows?
Maybe something positive would come of it…
In the restaurant, sadly, I admit to having done nothing.
In retrospect, I feel that I should have said something
to the father. But for some reason, at the time, I could
not bring myself to do so. Not sure why. Now I think it
was because I felt uncomfortable, and perhaps may have feared
the backlash. Regretfully, had I perhaps cared a bit more,
and felt more sensitive to the situation, I would have gotten
over my own resistance, and simply called the father over
to a side and said:
“You have such beautiful children. Such gentle souls. G-d
must have really loved you to bestow you with such a gift
to cherish and protect. It hurts me, in the deepest possible
way, to see that these children have provoked you to raise
your voice to them.”
Even if the father had told me to mix out of his business,
I would have persisted: “I know it may not be my business,
but please hear what I am saying. Your children are just
so, so delicate…”
Would that have helped? Who knows? But it definitely would
not have hurt…
What would you have done?
Your comments and suggestions to this critical discussion
are welcome and necessary. Please share your thoughts.