PARSHAT SHMOT

NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY

“He [Moses] turned this way and that and saw there was no man, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”  (Exodus 2:12)

On March 13, 1964 on the streets of New York City, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender was beaten and murdered.  She cried out several times.  According to newspaper reports at the time, 38 people heard her cries, but nobody called the police or tried to intervene.  (More recently, questions have arisen about the accuracy of the newspaper accounts.)   This was a sad example of what is called “the bystander effect.”  People see evil, but they choose not to act.   They assume that someone else will take responsibility.  So, evil continues unabated.

Towards the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we see the opposite of the bystander effect.  Moses, who had grown up to a life of privilege in the home of Pharaoh’s daughter, sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew man.  According to the Torah, he looks around and sees there is no person to help.  No person could mean that there is nobody around at all.  But I prefer the explanation that there is no person willing to take action.  There are bystanders but no one is willing to step forward and stop the beating.  It was exactly what happened millennia later to poor Kitty Genovese.  So, Moses takes action.   Moses gets in trouble for his action in slaying the Egyptian taskmaster.  It became known in Pharaoh’s household and Moses has to flee for his life.

The Ethics of the Fathers gives Rabban Gamliel’s clear admonition how we are to behave, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (Avot 2:5). Of course, the Mishnah uses male language.  But we can say it in a non-gendered way, “In a place where no one is willing to act, you should take action.”  A similar idea is expressed by the Torah itself where Leviticus’s beautiful holiness code teaches, “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16).  Do not stand by when your fellow is in trouble.

Of course, taking action has consequences.  Moses has to flee before Pharaoh.  One thinks of the righteous gentiles who were willing to stand up to the Nazis, many of whom lost their lives.  Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, has a special walkway with trees planted in honor of these righteous gentiles.  Unfortunately, too many people were followers of the bystander effect, knowing what was happening but refusing to take action.  As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” 

Fortunately, most of us do not live in a world where our lives are endangered if we take action.  But the bystander effect is real.   According to an article in Psychology Today, the more witnesses to evil, the more responsibility is diffused.   Also, the article speaks of social influence.  People do not act until they see how others around them act.  As a result, too often nobody acts.  To quote the article, “The intervention of bystanders is often the only reason why bullying and other crimes cease.  The social and behavioral paralysis described by the bystander effect can be reduced with awareness and, in some cases, explicit training.”

Why did God choose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt?  There are many possible answers.  But perhaps one of the most important is that Moses was unwilling to be a bystander.  When he saw evil, he stood up, even at the risk of his own well-being.  The article in Psychology Today ends on a positive note.  “If you are the victim, pick out one person in the crowd and make eye contact.  People’s natural tendencies towards altruism may move them to help if given the chance.”

Sadly, we live in a world where evil seems to proliferate.  Our job is to stand up to evil.  In doing so, perhaps we can increase the amount of goodness in the world.