At the end of the Parashat Beha’alotecha, we learn a lesson that should ring true for each of us. Miriam and Aaron speak with disdain about Moses. God becomes so infuriated that he strikes Miriam with Leprosy. Moses, seeing his sister sick, in pain, and headed for death, becomes so horrified by the harshness of God’s punishment that he takes a drastic step. He yells out a short prayer to God that is so “to-the-point” and so terse, that it is more of a command than a petition. “Please God, Heal her!” is all Moses says. God hears it loud and clear. In fact God hears it so clearly that the Deity agrees to restore Miriam to health.
This episode forces one to ask many questions. Why did God change the punishment? Did God hear the need for compassion that was in Moses’ voice? Did, perhaps, Moses’ words force God to look at Miriam’s service to God and the Israelite nation and make Him recognize that her transgression was nothing compared to the positive things she did?
These are good questions indeed. However, there is another avenue that must be explored. What does one do when confronted by injustice? This episode makes it apparent that one cannot sit idly by (even when the injustice is perpetrated by God). There is ample additional support for this notion in the Torah and our Tradition.
The Torah frequently admonishes: "And you shall eradicate the evil from your midst" (Deuteronomy 13:6, 17:7, 21:21, 24:7).
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, believed that apathy toward injustice results in greater wickedness. He wrote that "indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself " and that silent acquiescence leads to evil being accepted and becoming the rule. The Insecurity of Freedom , New York, 1967, 92.
Jews are required to protest against injustice and to try to agitate for change even when successful implementation appears very difficult. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Zera states, "Even though people will not accept it, you should rebuke them." Shabbat 55a.
We can never be sure that our words and actions will be ineffective. Thus the only responsible approach is to try our best. Rabbi Tarfon famously noted in the Mishna that: “It is not your obligation to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it”. Pirkei Avot 2:21.
Lest we conclude that the requirement to speak out only applies to helping others, the Torah provides proof that we should help ourselves as well.
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, three incidents in Moses’ life, before God chose him to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, are presented. These occurrences, which are probably familiar to most of us, teach that Jews must be involved in helping resolve disputes, whether they are between a Jew and a non-Jew, two Jews, or two non-Jews. 1) On the first day that Moses goes out to his people, he rushes to defend a Hebrew against an Egyptian aggressor (Exodus 2: 11, 12); 2) Moses, next, intervenes in a dispute between two Hebrews (Exodus 2:13); and, finally, 3) after being forced to flee from Egypt and arriving at a well in Midian, Moses comes to the aid of Jethro’s Midianite daughters who were being harassed by other Midianites. (Exodus 2: 15 –17).
Indeed, none other than the great sage Hillel provides additional guidance on this issue when he stated in the Mishna: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? Pirkei Avot 1:14.
We live in perilous times. What started with Israel is being physically and verbally assaulted has now shifted into Jews all over the world being subjected to the very real possibility of being physically and verbally assaulted.
With an apparent majority of the world against Israel and the Jewish people, and with so much vitriolic rhetoric, one might feel that speaking out would be an exercise in futility. However, We cannot allow ourselves to succumb to this feeling of helplessness. If Moses could call out to God and tell the Creator that what God was doing was wrong, we need to have the strength to speak out against the wrongdoings of people who seek to do us harm. Even if there are more of them, and even if the task seems undoable.
Further, just as Moses did not hesitate for a moment in making his plea to God, we cannot afford to wait to take action.
As I am writing this I am watching a zoom rally organized by several Jewish organizations with an ecumenical group of faith and political leaders. It provides comfort and strength to see that we are not alone.
There are a few things that you can do now to combat the antisemitism that we are facing today:
- I suggest going to https://www.actagainstantisemitism.org to see what you can do to help to battle antisemitism. Your voice matters.
- Continue to “do” Jewish. Come to services on zoom now and, soon, in-person as we begin returning to our beautiful JCC building. On Shabbat: Light candles, say Kiddush over wine, and say the blessing over Challah. Read Jewish books. Watch Jewish shows. Cook (and eat!) Jewish foods. Do all of this proudly.
Reach out to those you know who are not Jewish. Only through getting to know the “other” will they, or we, get to look at each other as equals.
- There has been a willingness, among some, to blame Israel for the current spate of hatred against Jews here. Please do not fall into this trap. While Israel, like the United States, is not perfect, hatred against Jews is the oldest form of hatred. The recent attackers may blame Israeli actions for their attacks on Jews here, but, if it weren’t Israel, history has taught us that the haters would find some other reason to attack the Jewish people. Tom combat this, I suggest that we should not solely rely on the main media outlets for our information about Israel and the middle east. Too often, their reporting is weighted against Israel. As I have suggested before, add The Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post to your daily reading lists. I am also still highly recommending that you read Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth, by Noa Tishby.
- Finally, I have received several concerned emails from congregants. I try to respond quickly thoughtfully to each one. Reach out to me with questions.
Even with the current turmoil, there has never been a better time to proudly stand up and embrace our Jewish identity. In fact, we should all feel blessed that we are Jews living in this age.
We, as Jews, are often the first to fight against the unfair treatment of others. We have been very good at helping others. Let’s make sure to use these very same tools to help ourselves.
I end by saying, again: There has never been a better time or place to live as a Jew than as the present and in the United States. Together we will address this current crisis and come out of it stronger.
Shabbat Shalom and have safe and healthy Memorial Day – Rabbi Michael S. Jay