Counting the Omer: Protecting Each Other

You’ve heard the expression: “Stick your neck out?”  What is the metaphor?  We compare ourselves to what animal?  I always thought it was giraffe.  Long neck.  I was wrong.  To stick your neck out, is to be like a turtle.  Why?  Sticking your neck out involves risk.

Judaism takes this concept, to stick your neck out, very seriously.  Take the Jewish law about gossip, or lashon hara: If one person is gossiping to another, and a 3rd person overhears, the conversation.  Of the 3 people, who is most responsible–the gossiper, the listener, or the witness?

The 3rd person.  The witness is obligated to intervene.  There is no pass, for the passive bystander.  Judaism’s focus on the power of the witness, demands we stick our neck out– to take a risk for what we know to be right.

In the past several months, the Whitehouse and college campuses across the nation have brought new attention and resources to this concept of sticking your neck out, in response to the epidemic of sexual violence against women on campus.  Bystander Intervention, believed to be the best hope for reducing sexual assault on campus, aims to empower anyone who is witnessing potential trouble.  

The concept is simple.  If a young drunk man at a party is pressuring an uninterested young woman, then someone witnessing the scene needs to step in and put a stop to it.  The witness does not step in only if he is a particularly nice guy.  If the bystander is aware of potential sexual assault, it is her obligation to intervene. From Massachusetts to Mississippi, universities are training their students–both women and men– to interrupt aggressors, often in creative ways.

They learn tricky diversions, that are less likely to humiliate the aggressor or to escalate conflict: at a party they may turn up the lights or turn off the music, accidentally spill a drink on the guy, form a conga line and pull him away from the woman he’s bothering and onto the dance floor.  Anything to break the mood before bad or drunken behavior becomes assault.

The pioneering thinker behind bystander intervention, Jackson Katz, has trained hundreds of thousands of men (his focus is on men’s activism) to share responsibility for the prevention of gender-based violence.  His experiment, Mentors in Violence Prevention–MVP–aims to train bystanders to feel enough compassion for victims to act, whether by intervening to discourage attacks, by offering aid or by calling the authorities.

Some of us here will soon be college students.  Most of us will not.  Yet the message of shared responsibility extends beyond sexual assault and beyond the campus.

Having begun his training in sports at Northeastern, Jackson Katz now trains marines, professional athletes, law enforcement officials.  He explains: his work is not about sensitivity training; it’s about leadership training.

Sometimes, it’s a theoretical moment that demands leadership.  Picture the poker game where an acquaintance tells a sexist joke.  What do you do?  You could pretend you didn’t hear it.  You could make a face that shows your discomfort.  You could leave the table.  Or, with the bystander approach, you interrupt the joke.

You have been to that poker table.  You have been to that cocktail party.  And you have heard that joke.  Or you have heard the joke that oozes homophobia or racism. If there is behavior and language we wish were unacceptable in our peer culture, then we cannot accept it.

Think back to the last time you witnessed something you knew was wrong.  You just couldn’t find the words.  You didn’t need sensitivity.  You needed a plan.  The message of bystander intervention training is: get a plan.  Have a strategy, ready in your back pocket, for the next time you hear sexist talk at the water cooler, the next time you see a xenophobic post online.

In the moment, when it’s time for the interruption, you may be tempted to give yourself a pass.  It happens to me.  Can’t I pretend I don’t notice?  Is this my business?  Is this really my problem?

This Shabbat, in parashat Naso, we find the words of the priestly benediction with which we close our Rodeph Shalom services.  The first line teaches: Yivarechecha Adonai veyishmerecha.  May God bless you and keep you.  Keep you: vayishmerecha, from the Hebrew shomer, really means guard or protect.  We pray that God protects us.

Turn back to the Book of Genesis and you’ll see that same word for protect or keep, in the story of Cain and Abel.  After Cain kills Abel, God asks him: “Where is your brother?” Cain responds: “I do not know.  Hashomer achi anochi?  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  God does not need to ask Cain where Abel is.  God knows.  God is not asking, “Where is your brother?”  God is teaching: You are your brother’s keeper.  You are your sister’s protector.  I imagine God saying: You can pray for Me to guard you all you want… protect each other.

The mystics look at our responsibility to protect one another and say we are more than our brother’s keeper—we are all a single being.  That’s why Yivarechecha Adonai Veyishmerecha is in the single form.  May God bless you, you the singular whole.  United, we compose the complete form of Shekhinah–the dwelling presence of God.  Each of us is a limb in that divine form.  You are a finger.  I am a toe.  You are a shoulder.  You are a leg.  You are a hand.

So, when I am the bystander, is it my business?  Is it my problem?  Am I my brother’s keeper?  Of course I am, my brother is my own heart.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha-olam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al s’firat ha’omer. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with sacred actions and enjoins us to count the omer.

Hayom shivah v’arba-im yom, shehem shishah shavuot v’chamishah yamim la-omer.

Today is 47 days which is 6 weeks and 5 days of the Omer.

Wishing you a meaningful omer– Your RS Clergy


“Stepping Up to Stop Sexual Assault,” New York Times, Feb 7, 2014

“Training Men and Women on Campus to Speak Up to Prevent Rape,” NPR, April 30, 2014