I was always taken aback by the studies that show how many people will ignore a crime perpetrated before their very eyes. Stories abound about street muggings with passersby briskly running along, avoiding confrontation and disregarding the cries of the victim. “How could people be so insensitive?” I would wonder. “Would they like to be ignored if they were in such a predicament?”
Until the moment I found myself in this precise situation. Sometime after midnight on a cold winter night I heard muffled sounds through my window. Peering outside I saw two men assaulting a third, evidently in the process of robbing him.
My first reaction was fear. Are they carrying a weapon? If I go outside will I be placing myself in danger? Can I even help this person? All types of excuses were racing through my mind to justify not intervening. I could just call the police and wait till they came. But despite all my superhuman efforts to avoid the situation, I quickly realized that I was succumbing to being sub-human in ignoring the cries of a man in need. And regardless of my knee-jerk instinct to protect myself at the expense of another, I grabbed a shovel at the door and ran out of my house yelling at those guys. I ran down the steps and as I approached the crime scene, the men dashed off, leaving a trembling elderly man – whom I recognized as our neighbor – slumped on the ground and bleeding slightly. I helped him up, walked him into his home and attended to his needs.
And no, I do not consider myself a hero. I simply did the humane thing. But I will never forget the temptation to look the other way, which, frankly, was quite embarrassing.
How many crimes and injustices in the world – and in history – would have been prevented had some people – someone, anyone – protested and intervened?
How many people today standing right near you are being hurt and no one really cares?
How many of us are wounded with no one asking us how we feel?
From time immemorial gentle mystics and sensitive souls have pondered upon the disturbingly absurd paradox of a universe that is integrally connected and interdependent, and yet we can so easily ignore the pain of another (or even hurt another) even though it also injures us. The Jerusalemite Talmud succinctly captures it with this blunt question: If we humans are all part of one organism, how can one part of the body harm another? Does it make any sense that the left hand would strike the right hand if it was misbehaving?
The only conceivable answer is that we are not aware. We do not feel that we are all part of one entity. And this is one of the saddest elements of existential loneliness: The illusion that each of us is all alone. That each of us is self-contained and separate from everyone else. That your pain is yours alone. No one cares and no can even understand what you are going through.
All of Torah comes to counter this myth. As Hillel declared: “That which you dislike do not do unto others. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.” This is consistent with and complements Hillels’ other statement: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” We are each individuals, and at the same time interconnected and interdependent. When one of us is hurting all of us are hurting.
We may not feel it, but that does not diminish the reality.
One verse in this week’s Torah portion encapsulates this message. But first, a short introduction.
My father, journalist Gershon Jacobson, once went to the see the Rebbe. At some point in their conversation, the Rebbe smilingly said to my father: “Being that you are a newspaperman, would you like to interview me?”
My father hesitated and then inquired of the Rebbe whether he can ask him anything. “Yes, indeed,” the Rebbe replied. “Isn’t that the nature of an uncensored interview?”
Included among the questions my father asked was the following: “People wonder why the Rebbe takes on causes that others ignore, sometimes even seemingly impossible situations?”
The Rebbe responded by citing a verse in this week’s Torah chapter, which describes one of Moses’ first experiences: “It happened in those days that Moses grew up and he went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. Moses witnessed an Egyptian striking a Hebrew man of his brethren. He turned this way and that way and he saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-12).
The Rebbe wondered: “Why did Moses look all around, and only when he so no man, did he strike the Egyptian? In this time of crisis, was Moses so concerned about his own well-being? And if so, why do we have to be told that detail? The fact is that despite Moses’ v caution, two men actually witnessed his act and later informed on him. So clearly this verse has some other message to tell us.
“’He looked all around and saw no man’ can be interpreted to mean that he saw ‘no man’ that cared – no one was concerned about the travesty being perpetrated against their fellow men. Moses however did care. So he proceeded to do what is necessary to protect innocent people from brutal genocide.”
“When we witness an injustice and look around and no one seems to care,” the Rebbe concluded, “we must act.”
That defines a leader. Someone who cares when everyone else is busy with their own interests. Certainly, important interests, but still self driven ones.
A leader is someone who doesn’t just empathize with another person. He or she feels the other person’s hurt as if it was their own.
We are all like one organism. Even when a tiny toenail is hurting the entire body feels it.
So look around. Injustice, pain, hurt – people are suffering. If you see “no man” – if you see no one caring – why don’t you become the man, and do something about it?
At this very moment, as you read these lines, there may be someone nor very far from you that can use a kind word, an embrace, a nice gesture. With modern technology we can make a phone call, send an e-mail, text message, tweet – whatever it takes – and soothe an aching heart, bring joy to a bleeding spirit.
Sometimes all it takes to change a world is (not a village, but) “simat lev” – one person to care.