The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
There is a story told about Rabbi Aharon Kotler, a prominent 20th-century scholar who knew that as a public figure, his behavior was constantly scrutinized. One evening, when Rabbi Kotler entered the synagogue he was observed giving money to a beggar. A short while later, as he left the synagogue, he was observed giving money once again to the same beggar. When Rabbi Kotler was later questioned as to why he gave to the person twice, Kotler replied that he feared someone might see him passing the beggar, and conclude that the man was unworthy of being helped. Rabbi Kotler models action, of recognizing the dignity of another person, when inaction, when turning the other way might be easier.
Ki Teitzei, this week’s Torah portion, says it simply and powerfully: “Lo tuchal l’hitalem — We must not remain indifferent” (Deuteronomy 22:3). It is one item in a litany of 74 other laws laid down in this portion. Indifference connotes apathy, a lack interest in or concern about what’s going on around us. But indifference is far more complicated than that. Sometimes I am indifferent because I’m uninterested in something. At other times, I choose indifference to avoid conflict; it’s the path of least resistance. Maybe we are indifferent because we are so bombarded and distracted by the needs of our family or obligations at work that we can’t focus on the needs of others. Or in today’s world, though we want to support our fellow human being, we can’t because we struggle to fend for ourselves.
Ki Teitzei teaches that the indifference at stake is toward the suffering of others. The 11th-century French commentator Rashi suggests that indifference means the physical act of hiding our eyes so we do not have to see that suffering that exists in the world. It’s hard to face the struggles that exist around us, to open our eyes to the injustices in our world, especially when we are at a loss for how to respond. Yet, even if we can’t act in that moment, perhaps Rashi is reminding us of a more powerful lesson: We must never close our eyes to the humanity in the person staring back at us.
“On the surface, the Torah is very simple,” writes Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles. “[When the Bible teaches] ‘don’t harden your heart,’ ask yourself: in the Bible, whose heart is hardened? Let’s recall that Moses goes into Egypt and says, ‘Let my people go,’ and Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Any Jew who can look at a human being in need and not hear God’s call to ‘let my people go,’ to do something, becomes a Pharaoh. You don’t have to be evil to be on the side of evil. You simply have to remain indifferent. All that it takes for goodness to be vanquished is for us to ignore the suffering and desperation of our fellow human beings. To fail to act is all it takes to create a society of inequity and of callousness. Refusing to lend a hand, we become the Pharaohs of our age.”
Rashi, Rabbi Artson, and Rabbi Kotler remind us that indifference is a choice. Will we choose kavod habriyot, the recognition of the fundamental dignity of all life? Or will we choose to ignore the suffering right in front of us? Lo tuchal l’hitalem. To not act indifferently requires that we accord every one of God’s creatures a level of dignity, human beings and animals; people of all genders, sexualities, races and religions; the rich and the poor.
This week, as we commemorated the 18th anniversary of 9/11, and as we prepare for the dawn of a New Year, I hope we can all come to appreciate the preciousness and value of human life and of the moral, ethical, Jewish and human imperative to overcome the indifference that exists in the world. It’s time that we collectively stand up and speak out against indifference, that we act even when it’s hard, even when others might be watching our every move, even if it means that we bear a great burden of responsibility to our families and ourselves. For it is only when we rid the world of indifference that we can create and live in a world that God would be proud of.