ACHAREI MOT KEDOSHIM 5775
This week’s news stories brought to mind an incident that happened more than 50 years ago in NY. I was just a teenager but the story has never left me because it was so shocking. Kitty Genovese, 28, was returning home one night from her job as manager of a bar. As she started to walk the 100 feet to the entrance of her apartment in Kew Garden Hills, Queens, from her car, she was accosted. She screamed. Lights went on in the apartment building, windows slid open. Kitty screamed: “Oh, my Gd, he stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me!”
From one of the upper windows a man called down, “Let that girl alone!” The assailant looked up at him, shrugged, and the assault continued. Kitty shrieked, “I’m dying! I’m dying!” For more than a half hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and slowly stab a woman to death and not one person even picked up a phone to call the police—let alone try to intervene.
This story shocked the nation because it forced us to confront the question: Is this what we’ve become? Are we not our brother’s keeper? How could anyone stand by and not take action letting an innocent woman die? As the Torah commands us in today’s parsha (Lev. 19:16): Lo taamod al dam reyecha, “Do not stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is spilt.” I think America changed after that—but not always was it a change for the better.
2 incidents this week indicate 2 very different responses to this Biblical command—one life affirming and healing and the other violent and destructive.
The April 19th death of African-American Freddie Gray while in police custody triggered a wave of protests in Baltimore after his funeral last Monday. How could they stand by idly while their brother’s blood was spilt? But the protests turned violent, giving way to rioting and looting. It looked like last summer’s Ferguson Missouri all over again. All the news channels were glued to the scene of the rioting for days repeating scenes of masked looters destroying local business like a large CVS and looting its contents. I think that a peaceful protest—like those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—would have been much more effective.
Did this rioting bring justice for Freddie Gray? Like the riots in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, the riots ensued before the truth was known about what really happened. The coroner ruled yesterday that Freddie Gray’s death was a homicide…so Freddie Gray’s family deserves justice. However, this kind of protest will only bring destruction and chaos to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood which may take a decade to recover as businesses will now be reluctant to invest and locate there.
There was a shining light, though, among the protesters: Toya Graham. Did you see the video? This Baltimore single mother of 6 saw her son with a brick in his hand and even though he’s much taller, she lost control and yelled at him to drop it—slapping him several times and pulling him out of the protests. CNN’s video of this went viral and the praised she received for going to the Mondawmin Mall and getting her son away from the rioting was overwhelming. Toya taught her son and the nation that violence is never the proper response to achieve justice.
The Mondawmin Mall is located just 3 miles from Baltimore’s densely populated northwest Jewish community. Out of caution, Jewish schools and institutions closed for a couple of days. No incidents against Jews or institutions were reported although cars carrying youths wearing ski masks were observed passing through the area. By the end of the week of rioting, Jews were prominently seen volunteering to helping to clean up the affected neighborhoods.
In an unbelievable development, anti-Israel activists promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement tried to blame the riots on Israel. It reminds me of a routine I once saw on PBS where comedian Mark Russell commented, “No matter what goes wrong in the world, you can blame it on Israel.” LegalInsurrection.com writes: This is the same propaganda tactic used in Ferguson, where the fact that Ferguson and Israeli police used the same brand of American-made tear gas was used to try to blame Israel for Ferguson police actions. Another activist, Rania Khalek, tweeted that, “like most US police depts, Baltimore police received training in Israel,” alleging that police brutality in Baltimore can be blamed on Israel because some Baltimore police officers had attended an anti-terrorism seminar in Israel.
Lo taamod al dam reyecha, yes, “Don’t stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is spilt.” But if you seek justice, do it in a just way!
In stark contrast to the Baltimore response to this commandment, let’s turn to the other side of the world in Nepal. Last Shabbos a devastating earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale struck Nepal. The death toll now surpasses 6,000. The scenes of devastation and carnage are utterly heart-wrenching.
Lo taamod al dam reyecha, “Do not stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is spilt.” And so dozens of countries sent rescue teams, but none of them have the professional, devoted, brave and experienced doctors and officers like Israel, and the Israelis were among the 1st on the scene—in less than 24 hours. “We knew you’d come,” a Nepalese Army officer said to the team upon its arrival. “You are the best army in the world. I lived in Israel for 2 years and I admire your country. Shalom, falafel and tehina.” And then he became serious for a moment and added, “Help us, please.” (YNet.com)
YNet.com reported: The Israeli rescue force had a significant challenge: It’s impossible to land a large force in Katmandu’s mountainous airport, there are no means to unload 80 tons of equipment from the planes, and there is basically no way to dispatch a rescue mission within such a short period of time to such a faraway destination. But it seems Israel is unfamiliar with the world “impossible”…
It takes 12 hours to set up a hospital. A total of 120 medical professionals will work in it. They will treat, with total devotion, every child in danger, every pregnant woman who will lose her fetus without medical care and every person who may lose his limbs without a proper treatment. The flag of Israel will rise above the tents serving the hospital. And we should all raise our heads and watch it proudly.
Arnold Gerson, CEO of American Friends of Magen David Adom—Israel’s Red Cross—writes: Magen David Adom’s response in Nepal was not only effective, tactically, it was also guided by a sense of purpose. It’s mandate and responsibility is to be a light unto the nations, so being “the best” also means sharing its expertise with the world and leading by example—in this case treating scores of Nepalese civilians, working with local doctors, and teaming up with international agencies to save lives…
There’s only one way to achieve that level of expertise: experience. Over the years, MDA’s swift and determined response to mass-casualty scenarios has become world-renown. It was a level of proficiency attained in response to the 2nd Intifada. What we see in Nepal is the result of experiences saving lives in the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa from years of bus bombings and suicide attacks.
The Torah commands us: Lo taamod al dam reyecha, “Do not stand by idly while your neighbor’s blood is spilt.” And so Israel is there to help anyone in need, anywhere in the world. Israel not only sprints to the scene of a disaster, it prepares beforehand for the marathon of doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes to help save lives.
As Jews our focus is on Tikun Olam, “repairing the world.” Our Talmud (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9) teaches us: “Whosoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” This is what we do best and this is what we teach. Incidentally, the head of the Israeli field hospital in Nepal, Col. Tarif Bader, is a Druse doctor—not Jewish!
My friends, our souls should be bursting with pride. Am Yisrael Chai, “the people of Israel shall live.” They will never stand by idly while their neighbors blood is spilt and do so with chesed, compassion and love. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis