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? You see two people fighting in middle of Synagogue services. How do you react? 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?
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 really care.
What really lays at the heart of the resistance anyone has to hearing rebuke? Pride, fear of being judged, shame, exposure.
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 us.”
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.