Do not Stand Aside!
April 29, 2011
After yesterday’s horrific weather and the resultant death and devastation throughout the South, we woke up this morning to renewed hope and optimism as we joined with billions of others in rejoicing with the royal couple at their magnificent, yet simply elegant wedding. Every wedding fills us with faith in the future. This almost fairy tale like wedding of the handsome prince and beautiful princess reminds us of the power of ritual to unite and focus and entire nation and, in this case, the whole world. The coverage of the royal wedding was a welcome escape from the problems that afflict us, from the real issues of the day.
I begin our discussion of one of these crucial issues by referring to this week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim, which is at the physical and theological center of the Torah. Kedoshim, from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, begins with the exalted words, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” The text goes on to tell us that that actions and attitudes lead to holiness. Leviticus 19 reiterates the Ten Commandments and says to us that holiness is not something achieved in isolation by oneself but is only possible within the context of community. We do not have monks or monastic communities within Judaism as holiness must be lived within the world, not apart from it. In reading this chapter, two verses immediately stood out in being applicable to us this week in Baltimore.
Leviticus 19:16 says, “You shall not be a gossipmonger among your people; you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed: I am the Lord.” “The two phrases suggest two different lessons- a warning and an obligation. On the one hand, we are commanded not to spread lashon hara, gossip, because it demeans one’s neighbor, insidiously and behind his back, in ways that he cannot counter. Throughout the ages, immeasurable harm and bloodshed have come about through gossip.” Through a careless word, we can destroy a person’s reputation, bringing them irreparable damage and sometimes even death. One only has to think back to recent releases on You Tube that literally led to a young man’s death to understand the power of uncensored and unbridled speech.
“The balance of the verse warns us not to shrink from responsibility.” We are not allowed to ignore hurt and harm when we see it. We are commanded to intervene and to help wherever and whenever we can. The path to holiness is one of involvement. The way to a holy life is through action. We are responsible for that which occurs around us. This admonition immediately comes to mind when we think back to last week’s terrible incident at a Rosedale McDonalds, one captured on a video that shocked the world. Two young women, a 14 and 18 year old, senselessly beat Chrissy Lee Polis, a transgender woman, when she tried to enter the lady’s room. “The online video captured the brutal assault. It also showed a McDonald’s employee coming to Polis’ aid, but the women eventually set upon their victim again. One of the women can be seen dragging Polis across the restaurant to the front door while the other kicks her several times. An elderly woman, Vicki Thoms also tried to intervene but was shoved away by one of the women. Polis suffered a seizure as a result of the attack. She also had several cuts and bruises. A man continued to capture the assault on video, never once attempting to help, but instead was heard laughing several times during the footage. Other McDonald’s employees are seen in the video standing nearby as the fight ensued. “I knew they were taping me; I told the guy to stop,” Polis said. “They all just sat there and watched.” The man who captured the video was 22-year-old McDonald’s employee, Vernon Hackett, who has since been fired.”
The women have been arrested and are facing charges. The Baltimore County Attorney is considering charging the teens with a hate crime.
Those of us who are old enough remember the Kitty Genovese incident that took place in New York on March 13, 1964. The 28 year old Genovese was returning home from work when she was brutally stabbed and raped just outside her apartment building. Thirty-eight witnesses later reported that they heard her screams. Someone called police half an hour after the attack began. This egregious incident shocked America. We did not understand why witnesses would stand by and do nothing to help an innocent woman. This attack led social psychologists to perform a number of experiments that led to the formation of a theory called the Bystander Effect. “There are two major factors that contribute to the bystander effect. First, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present. The second reason is the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers are less likely to intervene if the situation is ambiguous”
Psychologists tell us that it may be human nature to stand aside when our fellow’s blood is shed. The Torah tells us that the path to holiness is one of constant struggle against that which is easy and natural. Let us pray that if we ever find ourselves in this position, we will take responsibility for our neighbor and not stand idly by. May this never happen again.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom