"To not stand idly by"
© Rabbi Neil A. Tow
As we paid tribute on Yom Ha'Shoah to the victims of Nazi terror, we focused on this year as the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising – a battle that was lost before it started, doomed to fail due to overwhelming enemy forces and lack of support and supplies from outside the ghetto.
The uprising began 70 years ago, today, April 19, 1943.
Nothing is left of the Ghetto – walking in the ghetto area we see apartments, green lawns, roads, and memorials – and a soon to be opened museum of Polish Jewry.
And as our recent Eastern Europe trip drew to a close, news of an attack on innocent bystanders, fans of the Boston marathon, people who, like me, stood on the sidelines cheering at the finish, helping in a small way to get people toward the finish line. People like Krystle Campbell, 29, 8 year old Martin Richard, graduate student Lingzi Lu whose lives ended at that finish line.
"Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa," our parsha teaches, "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor."
If we know we can save someone, we should, but what if we do not know the danger? What if we are as surprised as everyone else? What then? Is there a way to not 'Stand idly by', a way to be active after the fact? Can we fulfill God's expectation of us even as the blood of our fellow human beings stains the sidewalks on Boylston Street, or a Jerusalem street, or a village in Syria, or anywhere else?
We think to ourselves, I am not an FBI agent, I cannot assist with the investigation.
I am not CIA or NSA, I cannot help clarify intelligence reports.
I am not a first responder, I could not be there to bind wounds.
I do not live in Boston.
Can we be active in the debates and planning around issues of gun violence and other violence in our area?
Can we offer material, spiritual, and moral support to our brothers and sisters in Israel who live in range of rocket fire?
Can we muster the courage to step in when we see bullying occurring between adults and kids?
Can we offer our prayers for the victims of violence and spread messages that there are non-violent ways to resolve conflict?
We should honor though, at the same time, our 'would have feelings', the sense that we could not offer assistance in the moment even if we wanted to do so, perhaps even if we had been there – after all, we could have become victims ourselves no matter how good our intentions or skills.
Jewish thinking gives us language and action points in this situation. Missing an opportunity for a mitzvah, for example, is much different than an intentional avoidance of doing a mitzvah. If ancient Jews could not offer the Passover sacrifice on time, there was a Second Passover opportunity one month later. If we miss offering the Morning prayer, we can 'make it up' later on – there's even the text of an Amidah called 'Havinenu' designed to be recited in moments of duress when we cannot do a full version. Teshuvah is a continual process of self-reflection and a road to reconciliation that opens the chance for each of us to make right what went wrong between us and God, and between people.
Action after the fact may feel too late, 'token', or just as something that makes us 'feel better'.
I believe though that the people centered wisdom of Jewish generations suggests that we do not get mired in such feelings.
I believe in the story told to me by Rabbi Jeff Summit of Tufts Hillel, of the Rabbi who taught, 'What can we learn from the telephone? That what is said here is heard there.'
What we do here will echo there – wherever we could not be, wherever we wished we could offer a hand, wherever we fear to go because we legitimately feel we are putting our own lives in danger – the danger is the idleness or inertia, that we stand, planted in place, until the moment when the evil finds us.