Do Not Remain Indifferent

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains quite a few seemingly random, disconnected commandments. One especially striking commandment found in this week’s portion is:

If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days. (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

Most commentators believe this commandment is an important statement against animal cruelty, akin to the prohibition of boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk. Also, modern scholars point to an early ecological message of sustainability in this passage. However, there is another powerful message that our rabbis draw from this text in the Talmud; it lays the foundation for tale of Judaism first apostate, Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuya.

Elisha Ben Abuya, whose life is fictionalized in the book, “As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg,” was a complex man to say the least. He was born in the first century, the son of a rich and well-respected citizen of Jerusalem, and was trained for the career of a Jewish scholar. However, early in life Elisha, like many of his generation, was enamored with Hellenistic society.

He became a man of the world, acquainted with wine, horses, and architecture. He was a student of Greek; the Talmud suggests that his study of Greek philosophy was one of the factors that led him to a life of apostasy, or renouncement of Judaism.  It is taught that Elisha, while a teacher in the beit midrash, even sang Greek songs and kept forbidden books hidden in his clothes.

As appealing as Hellenistic life must have been with its baths, wrestling, art and music, their must have been more than just the draw of this secular society that drove Elisha away from Judaism. The sages recount a tale in the Talmud:

What did he see that made him go wrong? It is said that once, while sitting in the valley of Gennaser, he saw a man climb to the top of a palm tree on Shabbat, take the mother bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the end of Shabbat, he saw another man climb to the top of the same palm tree, take the young but let the mother bird go free. As he descended, a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed: It is written, “Let the mother go and take only the young, that you may fare well and have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:7). Where is the well-being of this man and where is the prolonging of his life? (BT, Hagiga 15b)

The text from this week’s parsha, when read literally is quite clear. Follow the law of leaving a mother bird when taking the young and you will live a long life. But what happens when it doesn’t work that way? Like so many of us, Elisha grappled with an essential question in this world, why do bad things happen to good people?

Known in academic circles as theodicy, this question has plagues humankind since our first days. In his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner grapples with this very question. First, it should be noted that Kushner titled the book, “When Bad Things Happen…” and not, “Why Bad Things Happen…” for a very deliberate reason. ‘When’ implies this will happen. It is a constant reality in our world. Second, the word, ‘when’ takes away the question of why. And that is one of Kushner’s main points. We will never know why. And there comes a point when it is futile to keep asking. Instead, Kushner posits, we should ask, “What are we going to do about it?”

I believe the the answer to latter, more helpful question, lies just a few verses earlier in this week’s portion in a seemingly disconnected passage:

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until they come looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or anything else they have lost. Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – Do not remain indifferent. (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Why did Hurricane Harvey devastate Houston, killing and injuring so many good people, and leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent, hard working folks homeless. I do not know. We will never know the answers to these questions. And frankly, I do not find any comfort in asking that question.

What are we going to do about it? What is our role in all of this? That is a question I can get behind. And the answer is clear, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – Do not remain indifferent.”

Like so many of you, I read this week about ordinary people saving lives because they chose to not remain indifferent. People like Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngval, the owner of Gallery Furniture, who took in 300 evacuees. Or The Islamic Society of Greater Houston, whose mosques have been providing cots and food to displaced people who may have otherwise never stepped foot inside. Or an elderly couple from Texas that were rescued by a pair of Jet Ski-riding heroes. When asked about their heroism they simple said, “Someone had to do it.”

Closer to home, I recently read about our own congregant and Berkman Mercaz Limud graduate, Michele Ozer, who works for URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, TX. She has been working around the clock to create a safe place for families to flee and has created a day camp in a matter of days for kids to escape the trauma of losing their homes.

All of these people embody the commandment, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent.” But ‘not remaining indifferent’ is not just about feel good stories of heroism. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Oren Hayon of Temple Emanu-El of Houston recently posted a powerful message on Facebook. Directing his message to the many journalists who had reached out to him, Hayon wrote:

If you came to Houston to report on the hurricane, and after spending a few days in our wonderful city, you just decided to spin some big, shaggy, heart-warming stories proclaiming that “The real lesson of the hurricane is about how neighbors help each other!” or “The most powerful force in Houston is the indomitable human spirit!” – then you’re actually not helping.

Yes: selfless people with hearts of gold are doing extraordinary work in our city, and inspiring people are looking after each other in amazing ways all across Houston every day. But if those are the only stories you’re telling, then you’re just serving empty calories.

There are important stories that urgently need to be told now. We need meaningful stories about why the infrastructure of our cities and our nation is crumbling, and what can be done about it. We need real conversations about the backroom horse-trading of the state budgeting process, and about where those dollars really go. We need your help to explore race and wealth and housing and religion and public transit and education, and how all of them combine to affect human beings’ ability to survive and succeed.

Rabbi Hayon reminds us, “Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent.” Do not remain indifferent to the underlying injustices in our world.

Yes, the world is unfair and the righteous will suffer but we have the power and responsibility to help mitigate that suffering through our acts of loving kindness. For Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, witnessing this suffering first hand was too much to take. He lost his faith and turned away from Judaism. That is a justifiable response and I do fault him or other, like Holocaust survivors, for having such a reaction.

Yet there is another response to the suffering of the innocent. Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent. Double down on your faith in God, in the world, and in humanity and choose to engage. Engage in acts of loving kindness and tikkun olam – repair of the world. You can find specific ways to help the families of Houston here. Whatever you do, just do something; Lo tuchal l’hitaleim – do not remain indifferent.