Tell me if this sounds familiar: You hear from a friend, whether by mail, e-mail, or facebook, about some cause for which she is fundraising. Perhaps it’s a cause particularly close to her heart. But you know she’s reached out to hundreds of her friends. You know she needs the help, but you ignore her note. “I’ve got other charities I give to,” you say to yourself. “And besides, she’s written to so many others, she’s bound to get the help she needs. She’ll be okay.”
I get these kind of solicitations all the time: Whether online or in my mailbox, there are many who reach out and ask for help of one form or another. And because the person asking isn’t right there in front of me, it’s very easy to delete or throw away their request. Invariably, I remind myself of the good I have already done through my charitable giving and other volunteerism in order to justify disposing of these other requests—all in an effort to assuage myself of the guilt of knowing I’m declining the obligation to do right elsewhere.
The question: Are we obligated to take action when presented with a moral imperative, or are we allowed discretion as to which causes we feel merit our attention?
In this week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tetzei, we read in Deuteronomy [22:1-3]:
You shall not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and hide yourself from them. [Instead,] you shall return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your home, and it shall be with you until your brother requires it, and then you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost thing of your brother’s which he has lost and you have found. You shall not hide yourself.
The Hebrew, “Lo tukhal, l’hit’aleim” can be read several ways: Most literally, “You shall not hide yourself.” More figuratively, “You shall not ignore it,” or more to the point, “You shall not remain indifferent.” Medieval commentator Rashi interprets thus: “You must not cover your eyes, pretending not to see it.” In other words, as you see your brother’s livestock wandering aimlessly, you can’t ignore your obligation by saying it’s not your problem. Once you’ve spotted the problem, you’re under the obligation to fix the problem.
As a society, we seem to respond when the cause is terribly great or popular: When Hurricane Katrina hit, we couldn’t sit idly by; when the tsunami hit Japan, we felt compelled to action; when the earthquake hit Haiti, we responded quickly. All those tragic events, which affected so many, forced us to rise up and answer the call of our hearts without having to be asked.
At the same time, we get inundated with other calls to action: The television is filled with ads from the ASPCA, Save The Children… this being Labor Day Weekend the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon is Sunday (without Jerry Lewis, I’m to understand)… But along with these televised requests comes a remote control. “Lo tukhal, l’hit’aleim” the Torah calls out, and yet we turn the channel, allowing us to hide our eyes from obligation.
Obligations don’t appear solely in the form of social action. Living in this country, civil action is also demanded of us. I’m reading into the text quite a bit, but I find it interesting that the Torah refers specifically to seeing a donkey. An elephant is mentioned nowhere in the Torah, but even so, with the Republican National Convention having just ended and the Democratic National Convention soon approaching, I couldn’t help but connect this particular text to what is happening in our country and our political process.
Many in our Temple community are very politically aware if not active, but across our nation, between voter apathy and ignorance, the political landscape of the United States is time and again decided by a minority. It is far easier to complain about our lot as citizens without getting involved than to take action, ensuring our government hears our needs and concerns. Many consume news from pundits and reporters, but justify their inaction by claiming to be helpless to change the situation or too busy to be bothered. “Lo tukhal l’hit’aleim,” the Torah reminds us, and once again, we turn the channel, and once again, hide our eyes from obligation.
We often hide our eyes in an effort to avoid doing things that deep down we know are the right things to do. Some of us do this so well it has become second nature. Fortunately, there are many who jump to action when action is warranted: They give when asked, but give even when they are not asked; they participate when asked, but lead the way even when they are not asked; they demand justice when asked, but pursue justice even when they are not asked. Understanding the notion of obligation is turning away from apathy and engaging life. Indifference should not be a human condition. Life demands connection, action, and participation.
In 1986, holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel said:
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.
But let me be clear: The opposite of indifference is not necessarily action. It is engagement. When I am asked personally for help in one form or another, I don’t respond to each request the same: For some charities, I give; for others, I make it clear that a particular charity, while worthy, is not my priority; and still for others I might redirect people to individuals who care more for that charity than I. But to ignore the request entirely is not fair to the one asking. It denies their existence and their need.
The same goes for our government: We don’t have to work on a political campaign, give money to a political party, or run for office in order to participate in our governmental system; but we can and should at the very least vote. We should be aware of how our government works and strive to fix that which we see as broken instead of simply complain. We should engage our elected officials and challenge them instead of allowing them to act freely without hearing their constituency.
Sometimes, people don’t engage because of a lack of hope. That is certainly understandable. Hope has become a rare commodity in recent times. But its lack or absence doesn’t excuse us from not being engaged. Quite the opposite: If we need hope and encouragement in order to engage, then our engagement can be found in that quest. It is for that very reason we come together as a congregation in prayer and meditation. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.
We engage in prayer to rebuild our will. We employ our will to engage the world. We engage the world to make it better for ourselves and others.
Our engagement does not have to be heavy. It simply has to be present. Often, we ignore problems and challenges that face us instead of engaging them. But we discover that engaging them can be much easier than the effort of procrastinating or sweeping them under the rug. In fact, life becomes more satisfying and rewarding when fully engaged.
On this Shabbat, let our hearts and our prayers be engaged. Let us not allow indifference to fill our hearts. Let us acknowledge our principles and values and act on them. We are not obligated to respond to every call to action, but we should not ignore them. And let us acknowledge the challenges that face our society and accept that which we can do as individuals to make the world a better place.