Posted on August 25, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
One of Elie Wiesel’s most important teachings is that “the opposite of good is not evil, it is indifference.” He knew this because he witnessed it. Having survived the Holocaust, he understood how the silent acquiescence of so called good people enabled the massacre of the six million, how passivity in the face of evil becomes complicity.
As a child, I learned this lesson from my father while on a family trip to Europe. Our plan was to pass through the Black Forest region of Germany on our way from France to Switzerland. But when we got to the border my father couldn’t bring himself to cross over. There we stood in a parking lot on the French side of the Rhine River gazing across until my father got us back in the car and drove south to take the long way to Switzerland. As a WW II veteran, he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his German contemporaries and thinking, ‘Where were you when your people were slaughtering my people?’ He knew that the perpetrators were the minority. He also knew how they were aided by the silence of the majority. Before Elie Wiesel penned his incisive words, my father already understood the consequences of indifference.
According to Maimonides, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains 72 mitzvot — more than any other parashah in the Torah. But its most important teaching is not one of those mitzvot; it is a general principle appended to one of those laws, the mitzvah to return lost property: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. … You shall do the same with his donkey; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your neighbor loses, and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22:1:3) The law is to return lost property. The all-important principle is, ‘Do not be indifferent.’
Laws are vital. They are essential to creating and preserving a just society. But they are not enough. To feel truly safe and secure, we need more than a set of laws — we need an ethos of caring, compassion, and mutual responsibility for each other’s welfare that becomes part of our DNA, part of our operating system, as it were.
Rabbi Moshe Alscheich, commenting on this section of the parashah, suggests that God gave us laws not only to regulate the relationships between people, but also to shape our character. Running after the lost donkey and seeing the impact of that deed shifts us from focusing on our own concerns to acting on behalf of others. We move from, “Not my donkey, not my problem,” to “What does this moment ask of me? What can I do to help?”
The state of our world today is troubling in so many ways. We are witnessing and are horrified by the effects of climate change. Our hearts are rent by the scourge of poverty and hunger, the plight of refugees, and the persistence of racism, sexism, and homophobia. We are anxious about the surge in antisemitism, outraged by Russia’s crimes against the people of Ukraine, and incensed by the attempts to undermine democracy in Israel, here in America, and around the world. The magnitude of troubles and suffering can seem so overwhelming as to be paralyzing. How does one begin to respond? How are we to solve problems of such enormity, especially when so many seem to be indifferent?
The answer lies in realizing the power and impact of small acts. Done with consistency, and especially in concert with others, we can make a real difference. When we take our TBE teens to the L’taken Seminar at the Religious Action Center in Washington, DC, and go up to Capitol Hill to lobby our legislators, we always ask their aides, “How many phone calls does it take for you to consider your office to be “flooded” by concern about an issue?” The answer is usually about 20.
We may not be able to eradicate all the ills and evils of the world, but we can make things better. We can make a difference when we make the call, join the campaign or protest, volunteer our time, donate money and food, and engage in simple yet powerful acts of kindness, and compassion. Together, we fight despair by making a difference for the good.
You may recall the Sufi story I have often told about the person who sees all the corruption, evil, and suffering in the world and cries out, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?” And out of the long silence came the word of God: “I did do something. I made you.”
When we “run after the donkey,” we demonstrate that we are not indifferent, and contribute, in ways big and small, to repairing and healing the world.
Rabbi Arnie Gluck