Dr. Lipner in his office
Published by VIN News,
Jul 29, 2009
By Dr. Asher Lipner
The Haftara that we read this past Shabbos, called Chazon Yishayahu, is meant to remind us during our period of mourning, of what role the Jewish people played in their own exile from the land of Israel, and the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash which represents our special vehicle for closeness to Hashem.
The Navi did not find a lack of religious devotion expressed in the Jewish people’s Mitzvos bein adam lamakom, between man and G-d. Actually, Yishayahu portrayed the observance of these Mitzvos as themselves driving a further wedge between the people and Hashem, almost implying, Kabyachol, that it would have been better if the Jews would not have performed them:
Apparently the Jewish people were keeping all of the Mitzvos of Karbanos and Tefillah and Avoda, as well as Shmiras Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh and Yomtov. And not only did these Mitzvos not save them, but they were actually seen as repulsive at that time because of the context in which they were performed. Why were the hands of the nation considered full of blood-guilt? Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that these horribly accusatory words “do not refer to actual murder, but to social crimes which undermine the happiness and life of one’s neighbor.” And this is spelled out in Yeshayahu’s admonition to stand up for the rights of the weak and defenseless:
“Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (1:17)
In the eloquent words of an anonymous blogger, who goes by DovBear :
“The reason the Temple was destroyed was because the leaders of Jerusalem were pious frauds, who used the Temple to justify their selfish behavior.... In the language of the Prophet, they did not "Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow." They didn't protect the vulnerable or defend the rights of the innocent. Instead they just kept showing up on the Temple Mount, day after day, with their fat bulls and incense. While vulnerable people went exploited and unprotected, the leaders of Jerusalem gathered on a mountaintop to pay lip service to God.”
Our Own Times
In our generation, in which we have not yet seen the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, we must take these words to heart. Perhaps the “social crime” as Rav Hirsch calls it, that we all have the most “blood-guilt on our hands” for is that of child sexual abuse. Who else has had their “happiness and life undermined” and needs to be strengthened? Who else has been neglected and abandoned by our community more than the children who have had both their innocence and their bodies violated, abandoned and neglected, as we have refused to hear their voices?
But these are not the only victims of abuse in our community. Women who suffer the devastating and sometimes life threatening effects of emotional, physical and sexual abused by their husbands, do not yet have strong enough support in our community from all of us. When they are finally able to get a divorce, how much shame and stigma do we foist on them instead of love and compassion?
And there are less direct ways in which we are allowing people to be abused by those who have more power than them. What would you call it when a Yeshivah or a Bays Yaakov expels a child, neglecting to give him or her a fair hearing, yet alone the Beis Din of twenty three impartial judges that the Chazon Ish famously called for when deciding such a matter of potential life and death. Is this not abuse of the worst kind? What about parents who work hard and are Moser Nefesh for their children’s Jewish education being turned away from schools that want only the most elite children from the most elite families, despite the long history of Torah scholarship often blossoming from Jewish children of the least prestigious backgrounds?
Our reaction to these crimes needs to be one of moral outrage and confrontation. And yet we continue to choose to hide our heads in the sand. As Rabbi Lipshutz writes in his recent Yated Neeman editorial,
“When confronted with evil, and corrupt and depraved behavior, we are afraid to stand up and denounce it. We examine the issue from all sides, weighing the pros and cons of clear-cut opposition. We equivocate and try to figure out what’s in it for us personally, instead of considering the greater good.
When people prey on the weak, and we are hesitant to confront and expose them because we don’t want to appear as baalei machlokes, we are enabling evil to flourish. When we accept money and honor from people we know to be corrupt, we are encouraging these people to grow in power and influence….
Perhaps in the area of being bullied and robbed of their rights, second place must go to those who break with the crowd and choose to loudly speak up for the victims in our community."
Rabbi Lipshutz aptly describes our community’s reaction to these advocates, and the damage it does to us all: “When we permit others to publicly humiliate good people who have attempted to improve the public welfare, we are contributing to the moral pollution of our world.
Abused people cannot fight alone. Victims cannot be expected to have the moral stamina to fight off those who harmed them. By doing nothing to hold the guilty to account, we are as guilty as the perpetrators. The only way evil can flourish is if people of good will remain silent, either out of fear or self interest.”
This powerful “Yeshayau-esque” admonition looks deeply into the motives of people who “stand by idly the blood of their neighbor,” and identifies at least two culprits: fear and self interest. Self interest is indeed highlighted by Yeshayahu in condemning the behavior of the leaders of his generation.
“Thy princes are disobedient to the Law and companions of thieves, therefore doth the whole of their nation love bribery and run after payments. They do not look after the rights of the fatherless and the cause of the widow doth not even come unto them.” (1:23)
As for fear, we need only to look in this past week’s Parsha to see what fear of other people’s reactions can do to pervert justice and neglect the truth.
“Lo Saguru Mipnei Ish…Thou shall not fear before any man…” Devarim 1:17)
This is understood by the Meforshim to mean two things. Firstly, The Gemorah says that if two people come before a judge, one soft and one harsh…once you know that the harsh one is the guilty party, you are not allowed to avoid speaking up out of fear that he is wicked and may kill my child or may burn down my business. The reasoning is that although he may be a powerful person, Hashem is more powerful and “My fear should be upon you and not the fear of flesh and blood” (Sanhedrin 56b).
Secondly, Rashi explains another kind of fear that people experience that prevents them from advocating for victims of crime and injustice by alternatively translating “Lo Saguru” as “Thou shall not close up your words before a man”. This means, says the Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos (Negative commandment 276), that a student sitting in front of his Rebbe who sees that the Rebbe is mistakenly ruling in favor of the wrong party, must speak up, or else he transgresses the Biblical commandment of “Lo Saguru Mipnei Ish”. And furthermore the Rambam adds, the student is also transgressing, “Midvar Sheker Tirchak,” the Biblical commandment to stay far away from falsehood.
Fearing one’s loss of reputation, and of being shamed for doing the right thing is decried by virtually all Mussar Seforim as being the Atzas Hayetzer, or Sotton’s counsel. The Chovos Halvovos decries even DOING good deeds to win the approval of others (as opposed to concern with a relationship with G-d) as the worst kind of idol worship. How much more so does NOT doing the right thing out of concern for others’ opinions bespeak a lack of faith and of spirituality?
The Second Temple
On Tisha B’av we learn the Gemorah that describes the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, in which an innocent Jew being ejected from a party lead to the destruction of the Second Temple. Once again, when one Jew was traumatically humiliated publicly by another, the Rabbinic leadership did nothing. This led the traumatized individual to conclude that they acquiesced and were complicit in his abuse, and he turned into perhaps the greatest traitor or “Malshin” we have ever known. The Maharsha, in one of his comments on this Agaddic story explains the inaction of the Rabbis as a kind of flattering of the rich and powerful abuser, whom they were intimidated and impressed by. If not a literal violation of “Lo Saguru Mipnei Ish” this was clearly going against the spirit of the law and was a travesty of justice the likes of which, as we have already seen, Hashem said He cannot tolerate.
So as we fast and mourn for the destruction of our Holy Temple, and ponder our failings as yet another opportunity has been lost for us to reverse our history and have the Beis Hamikdash rebuilt, it seems clear that the necessary step we must all take is to become people who act the way Reb Chaim Soloveitchik explained the sole job description of a Rabbi: “to address the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor."
Innocent children who need protection from abusers, as well as people of all ages who are victims of all manner of abuse, need all of us to advocate strongly for their rights, to offer them whatever safety, support, acceptance and validation we can. Virtually all of the Torah’s messages about the destruction of both versions of the Beis Hamikdash, show that this is what was lacking in the Jewish people’s behavior.
Let us commit ourselves to do better in the upcoming year, and to prepare for Elul and the Aseres Ymei Tshuvah with an eye towards these goals. A radical shift in our approach to the problem of abuse will surely bring us all closer to our ultimate goal of the coming of Mashiach, so that next year we will no longer mourn on Tisha B’av but rather celebrate the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days.