This post is the second of a two-part blog post. The first segment can be read here.
The Mishna in the Tractate Yoma (8:9) tells us that “Sins between one man and his friend, Yom Kippur does not atone for until one appeases his friend.” It appears that Yom Kippur is another one of those fasts that is meaningless unless it comes with real change. Surely, if Yom Kippur cannot atone for a sin, that must be a deep violation of the Torah’s mission. Isaiah’s messages about fasts hold true; fasting is meaningless unless we change. And sins between one man and his friend – bullying – cannot stand.
The Bully represents the ultimate perversion of God’s system. The Bully says, “I am superior to you because of something I have that you don’t. You’re weak, I’m strong. You’re a loser, I’m cool.” The Bully uses social advantage to mistreat the other. The Torah continuously pushes toward a society where people look out for each other, but despite God’s message of Live to Give, the Bully takes, with no regard for the other. The Bully lacks empathy, the most important quality in human relationships. That is why the Torah constantly reminds us to build an ethical society ‘because we were slaves in Egypt.’ Only a people who know the sufferings of victimhood and slavery could truly empathize with another’s suffering. Only through empathy could the Jewish people always contain the inherent motivation to do the right thing. In other words, until you know how it feels to be a victim, you will never truly be able to empathize and stand up for the other.
Our leaders have held true to these values for thousands of years. Just weeks ago, President Obama said in his eulogy of Shimon Peres,
“And just as he understood the practical necessity of peace, Shimon believed that Israel’s exceptionalism was rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision, the precepts of his Jewish faith. ‘The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people,’ he would say. ‘From the very first day we are against slaves and masters.’ Out of the hardships of the diaspora, he found room in his heart for others who suffered. He came to hate prejudice with the passion of one who knows how it feels to be its target.”
Like President Obama, Moses, in our weekly Torah portions, is now nearing the end of his tenure. In this week’s reading of Haazinu, God tells Moses “For you shall see the land opposite you; but you shall not go there, into the land which I give to the children of Israel.” Moses’ popularity has grown in his final days, and the troubles of leadership that once plagued him have abated. Now the only act of business remaining is to hand the mantle of leadership to a successor. Moses can’t enter the land – he, like many of us, cannot always see the fruits of his labor. But by choosing a successor who possesses his own values, surely Moses can make sure the future of the Jewish people is poised for great things.
But the question remains: what is the stuff of leaders? Moses was the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had, but why was he chosen? A quick look at the text gives the answer. Moses understood and epitomized God’s wish for humanity: To create a society of giving, of standing up for the other, of paying attention to the suffering of others and not turning a blind eye. Simply put, Moses is an intervener. He doesn’t sit back. When there is injustice, he stands up. Whether it is breaking up a fight between two Hebrew slaves or saving some Midianite women he has never met, Moses stands up for what is right. In fact, in our very first encounter with Moses, we see him, of his own volition, leaving the palace and going out to see the life of an enslaved people he has no apparent reason to care for. He sees an Egyptian beating a slave and in this scene the trajectory of Moses’ life changes forever: “He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man” (Exodus 2:12). Moses is caught in the middle of action and inaction, and chooses action. Moses knows that, as the saying goes, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to sit on the side and do nothing.” Because in a society where the Haves take advantage of the so-called Have-nots, the bystander holds the key to making a change. The type of leadership that God expects and the world needs is leadership that is unafraid to call out and stand up to the Bully. Especially for the Jewish People, history’s perpetual victims, it is essential to transform our collective experience into a passion for empathy, our collective suffering into a corresponding dedication to change.
The world does not need more bystanders sitting on the side. The Bully should be stopped wherever he exists. (Certainly, at the highest levels of leadership, bullying is an intolerable trait, and we would do well to remember it.) Our best leaders, from Moses to Shimon Peres, understood these lessons and lived them. This Yom Kippur, let us all have a fast in the style of Isaiah: regaining some lost perspective and practicing not rote affliction but sincere introspection. And finally, may our collective meditation inspire a renewed commitment to fulfilling God’s eternal mission, as we emulate and select leaders who do the same.