By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx
Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim
If we think about it, caring for others, principles or causes gives us meaning and purpose in life. Conversely, turning away and being apathetic is leading our society to a greater sense of hopelessness and emptiness.
The 18th-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The greatest contribution anyone can make to the cause of tyranny and injustice is to do nothing at all. Elie Wiesel wrote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed.”
But it does more. Passivity not only undermines justice in the world, it paralyzes our own moral growth and leads to an emotional emptiness. To do nothing in the face of evil harms the very nature of our character, our soul.
Our Torah portion for this week, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, teaches us that the essence of holiness is rooted in caring for others. “Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor. I am the Lord.” We cannot turn away when we see suffering. We need to care.
Albert Camus wrote a poignant story called The Fall. It is about a lawyer, a very successful lawyer, established, impeccable, his world totally under control. One night while walking along the banks of the Seine River, he hears a drowning woman’s cry for help, but he doesn’t want to get involved. And so he keeps walking.
Years later, we find him ruined, talking to himself in a tavern in Amsterdam. “Please tell me,” he says to himself, “What happened to you one night on the banks of the Seine, and how did you manage not to risk your life? Oh, young woman, throw yourself into the water again so that I may a second time have the chance of saving both of us.”
We join synagogues and civic organizations because we want to be cared for. We want to find a place where our presence matters. Conversely, if we are to build a society that lifts us up, we need to care for one another. That is why I am honored to serve as “pulpit rabbi.” At Beth Or, we care for one another and give each other not only a sense of belonging, but purpose through loving and being cared for.
This past year, I had the pleasure of watching the movie The Zookeeper’s Wife and then visiting Warsaw, where the story took place. The story is riveting. It tells us about Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion. Why did they risk it all? It’s simple — they cared and they had no choice but to get involved. And in the process of saving others, they saved themselves.
Life cannot be lived in the singular. We find meaning, purpose and love in relationships. In Hebrew, the word for life is chaim. Chaim is a plural noun. In Hebrew, there is no noun for life in the singular. Life in the singular in the Hebrew vocabulary simply does not exist. Why? Because no life exists in the singular. It is found only in the plural. To live is to feel involved and to get involved.
One of my favorite stories of the Hebrew Bible is the story of the prophet Jonah. He was called by God to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, but he truly didn’t care what happened to them, for they were his enemies. The Assyrians had years before Jonah’s life sacked the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
So God tells him to care. And he simply didn’t. So he fled the other way. He got on a ship and sailed to Tarshis. On the way, he was almost destroyed. In the end, he was actually taken to the bottom of the sea, a metaphor for despair. The text tells us that a whale swallowed him.
Alone at the bottom of the sea, he repents and realizes that just as God cares, so must he. He tells the people of Nineveh to repent, and they immediately turn their evil ways around. Refusing to care almost destroyed him. Caring saved not only the people of Nineveh, but himself.
The Torah teaches, “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” If we are to be a holy people, then we need to care.
Though I am not gay, I care about the rights of the LGBTQ community. Though I am not black, I care about the rights of African-Americans. Though I am not Hispanic, I do not want to see a wall built and young, hardworking individuals living in the country illegally deported. Though I am not a Muslim, I care about their rights to celebrate their faith without government interference. Though I am not an Israeli, I care about what happens to my people in the land and state of Israel.
Caring is the recipe for redemption. If we are to be a holy people then, quite simply, we need to care for each other.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.