I was just a kid when I heard the story and it made me shudder. It still does. It happened in early 1964. Kittty Genovese was on her way home from work at about 3:00 AM. As she neared her apartment she was attacked by a lone assailant and stabbed twice in the back. She screamed for help and one of her neighbours yelled out his window “Leave her alone!”

The attacker heard the shout and he ran away. But ten minutes later he returned to finish what he had started. He stabbed her again, raped her, took $49 from her wallet and left her to die. The amazing thing is that while no less than thirty-eight of her neighbours had heard her screams, no-one came to her aid. No-one came outside to see what was going on. No-one called the police until she was already dead[1]. Social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané tried to understand why not even one person took any kind of initiative to save the poor woman. They defined a phenomenon called the “Diffusion of Responsibility”, also called the “Bystander Effect”, that states that larger numbers of bystanders will actually decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim. Reasons for this behaviour include the fact that onlookers think that somebody else will call 911 or that others will know better how to help. Whatever the cause, the Diffusion of Responsibility is burnt into the human psyche.

I was surprised to discover that Halacha actually compensates for this human trait. Our Sages rule in the Mishnah in Tractate Bava Batra [3:1] that a person seeking to prove a claim of adverse possession of another’s real estate must show he has had actual, open, hostile, continuous and exclusive possession of the land in question for at least three years, and that the owner has not objected during that time. In this case, we assume that the owner has sold the property to the person who currently lives there and that the title got lost. Not surprisingly, there are many caveats to this rule. The Aruch HaShulchan [CM 149:21] brings the opinion of the Shach[2] who rules that this law does not apply to public property. For example, a person who sleeps in a room in a shul for three years cannot claim ownership. The reason is that we cannot expect any particular person to publically object to the intrusion of the squatter because everyone thinks that somebody else will do it. In this case, everyone has the halachic status of a bystander. The Shach calls this “Kedera d’bei shutfei [la krira v’la chamima]” – “Too many cooks spoil the broth”.

What does this have to do with Parashat Mikketz? The answer is “Quite a bit”. The Middle East is hit by a famine of unheard-of proportions. There is no rain and so precious little grain grows. The grain that does grow is destroyed by blight. The only place that is immune is Egypt, which somehow had the ability to foresee the famine and spent seven years storing food and has now implemented a food rationing system that enables the sale of grain to foreigners[3]. The Land of Canaan is not immune from this famine and when Yaakov hears that grain is available in Egypt, he asks his sons [Bereishit 42:1] “Lama (why do you) titra’u? I have heard that there is food in Egypt. Go there and buy some so that we might live!” The word “titra’u” is the reflexive conjugation of the word “lir’ot” – “to see”. This conjugation is used regularly in the word “l’hitra’ot” – “See you later” – but it is unclear as to what Yaakov meant to ask his sons. According to Rashi, Yaakov and his children had food and were not impacted by the famine. How this happened is unclear. Perhaps Israel was not affected by drought or perhaps Yaakov had foreseen the famine just as his son, Joseph, had and he, too, had stored grain. Whatever the case may be, Yaakov and his sons did not need grain but they did not want their Ishmaelite and Edomite cousins to know this. So Yaakov tells his sons “Lama titra’u – Why do you show yourselves? Why openly acknowledge that you have food? Pretend that we need food just like everybody else and go down to Egypt to buy some grain”.

The Sforno takes a different approach, asserting that Yaakov and his sons were affected by the famine just like the rest of the world. And just like the rest of the world they would have to go to Egypt to purchase grain. The problem was that none of his sons wanted to make the first move. No-one wanted to be the one to acknowledge that they were in a crisis, and each one of the brothers assumed that as long as no-one else said anything, the situation must be bearable. The Sforno calls this “Kedera d’bei shutfei [la krira v’la chamima]”. They were all exhibiting the Diffusion of Responsibility [4]. Yaakov shakes them out of their stupor, telling them “Lama titra’u – Why do you stare at each other? How long will you continue to sit and pretend that we have food when we don’t? If one of you – any one of you – does not make the first move, we are all going to die!”

This explanation can help us understand a nearby verse, and through this verse, to explain one of the most inexplicable deeds that Yaakov ever did. After Yaakov reprimands his sons they head down to Egypt [Bereishit 42:3]: “So the ten brothers of Joseph went down to Egypt to purchase grain”. Why does the Torah choose this particular verse to call Yaakov’s sons “the brothers of Joseph”? One could answer that they were headed to Egypt where the food rationing was being managed by Joseph. This answer is somewhat problematic, as Joseph’s brothers were unaware of this fact at the time. Rashi senses the problem and suggests that Joseph’s brothers went down to Egypt with the express purpose of finding him and returning him home. If we’re already in Egypt, let’s look for Joseph. It is here where the Sforno’s answer shines. Let’s turn the clock back twenty-two years to when Yaakov last saw Joseph alive. Joseph’s brothers are tending their flocks in Shechem and Yaakov sends Joseph to check up on them. How could Yaakov do such a thing? He knew that Joseph’s brothers despised him. He knew that his sons were capable of murder. He was sending Joseph to his death. What was he possibly thinking? The Sforno could answer that Yaakov was banking on the Diffusion of Responsibility to save Joseph. Yaakov really did want Joseph to check up on his brothers. They were tending their sheep in a volatile part of the country, in an area where only a few years earlier two of his sons had wiped out an entire town. But Yaakov felt that Joseph would be safe, even in the den of lions that was his brothers. Yaakov was certain that none of Joseph’s brothers would take the initiative to harm him; that they would stare at each other and think to themselves “If we have Joseph here alone and nobody is doing anything about it, it must mean that we have still not reached the point of no return”. Indeed, it is only when two of Joseph’s brothers openly decide to harm him that the wheels are set in motion[5]. And so when Yaakov’s sons exhibit Diffusion of Responsibility in their indecision to go down to Egypt, the Torah reminds us of the same kind of indecision that nearly saved their brother, Joseph.

Next week we’ll take this idea to its logical conclusion when Yehuda refuses to allow the responsibility to defuse, and takes the initiative that changes Am Yisrael forever.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara

[1] Studies indicate that perhaps fewer than thirty-eight people heard her screams. Even if this is true, the story remains a parable that says horrible things about how large groups of people can act.

[2] Rabbi Shabtai Cohen, who wrote a gloss on the Yoreh Deah and the Choshen Mishpat, two of the most intricate parts of the Shulchan Aruch.

[3] Rav J.B. Soloveichik writes in “Vision” that “the sale of food to foreigners reduced the rations available to the Egyptians. Because of this benevolent policy the Egyptians had less food of their own”. This kind of behaviour was surprising for a pagan country like Egypt and it suggested to Yaakov that somebody else was in charge.

[4] This behaviour should not be mistaken for “Group Think”, in which subordinates try to say only things that will please “the Boss”. According to the Sforno, Yaakov’s sons really believed that all was well and that there was no reason to go to Egypt to purchase grain.

[5] See [Bereishit 37:19-20] “So they said one to the other, “Behold, that dreamer is coming. So now, let us kill him”.