On Friday morning I heard from Rabbi Adam Frank a new interpretation (for me) of the story Exodus 2: 11-12 “He (Moses) saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that, and seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian.” The Hebrew says that he saw no “ish,” no person. However, Rabbi Frank connected this to ish, as in Pirkei Avot 2:5, “When there is no ish (person) acting as a human being should, be that person who does.” There were people there, but they were standing idly by as the Hebrew slave was mercilessly beaten.
My imagination took this one step further. The Hebrew word for turned, “vayifen” can also mean “turned to,” or “appealed.” Perhaps Moses first begged an officer or bystanders to stop the injustice, and intervened when nobody else was willing. I of course ask myself whether Moses had to kill the Egyptian. Was the Egyptian beating the Hebrew to death? Was there truly no other way of stopping him. As we read in Sanhedrin 74a, if one stops a murder by killing the murderer when one could have stopped the murder by any other means, you are yourself guilty of murder. There are midrashim that claim that God held Moses accountable for killing the Egyptian. (Midrash Petirat Moshe).
We in the human rights community often feel that we are in Moses’ situation, and I have all too often been in the situation of begging Israeli security forces to do their job, and they have refused. Whether it is innocent or not, many soldiers maintain that they can arrest Palestinians, but only the police can arrest or detain Israelis. Even the army’s legal adviser in the Occupied Territories has written instructions to soldiers that they do have the authority to arrest Israelis, but the belief that they do not continues.
On one occasion settlers from the Susya settlement were leading their flocks into an olive grove belonging to Palestinian Susya and allowing the to eat the trees. I turned to a police officer who was standing next to me. He said that, unless the Palestinians could produce proof of ownership on the spot, he could do nothing. (Israel recognizes that the land belongs to Palestinians, although is now threatening to demolish their homes for lack of impossible to achieve permits, and after Israel expelled Susya residents from their original village.). I finally went down and expelled the flocks. When additional settlers showed up, the officer finally deigned to intervene.
Also in the South Hebron Hills, the army ruled after four years that the settler Moshe Deutsch from Susya had illegally planted a vineyard on lands belonging to the Hushiya family. However, although the army had declared the area off limits to Israelis, soldiers stood by when Israelis (presumably settlers) illegally entered the land to prevent the Hushiya family from working their lands. I begged the soldiers to enforce the order, saying that the were going to force me to violate the order myself in order to protect the farmers. Eventually, that is what I and one other person had to do. In this case, I can at least report that the army did their job the following week, and today the family accesses those lands on their own.
When are we obligated to protest or to act? In Tractate Shabbat 54b we are taught, “Anyone who has the ability to protest his family members and failed to protest, bears responsibility for his family members. Towards the residents of his city — he bears responsibility for the residents of his city. Towards the whole world — he bears responsibility for the whole world.” Similarly, Ibn Ezra writes on the verse “You shall not wrong the ger (The non-Jew living among us and accepting the basic ground rules of our society. Many maintain that the “ger” is a convert to Judaism, but we see below that Ibn Ezra states clearly that this is not the case. A.A.) living among you or oppress him/her, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me.” (Exodus 22:20-22):
“When the ger living among you agrees not to practice idolatry you will not wrong him/her in your land. For, you have much more power than s/he does. Remember that you were in this position in the land of Egypt. Just as the Torah mentions the fact that the ger has no power, it also mentions the orphan and the widow, who are Israelites, but have no power. Afterwards the Torah says, “And you shall not ill-treat” in the plural, it says “If you shall mistreat”(In the singular) For, anybody who sees somebody mistreating the orphan or the widow and does not aid them, s/he is also thought of as one who is mistreating. (22) And if you do mistreat. And here is the punishment. If one person mistreats and nobody comes to help out, the punishment is collective…
It still seems that there is a difference between evils taking place far away in other parts of the world that I as an Israeli have no connection to. Maybe a superpower can intervene and I would have a responsibility to demand that my country do so, but not I or Israel. Must I protest?
Other evils are far away, but we share some responsibility, such as when we close our borders to Africans fleeing for their lives, and now threaten to expel those who are here to places that further abuse them. Torat Tzedek chairperson Yoav Haas is a leader in the fight to stop Israel from selling arms to Myanmar and other rogue regimes. Some evils are taking place here in Israel/Palestine that we know about, but never visit. How many of us venture into low income Israeli neighborhoods, or Israeli Bedouin or Palestinian villages being threatened with demolition? How many of are present at the protests where Israeli security forces use excessive force? Perhaps more of us should make the effort, and some of us do.
When we make that effort, there are evils take place right in front of our eyes. What do we do then?
Do we have more responsibility in a country like Israel where we are (still) allowed to protest, use the courts, the free press, etc. as opposed to those who live in regimes where protest can be a death sentence?
Learning the lessons from this past Shabbat, may we all at least seek to be responsible and act as best we can, rather than to avoid responsibility and finding reasons not to act.