The greatest threat to humanity is not violence, hate, or terror. The greatest threat to humanity is apathy, complacency, and silence. When we witness such terror and refuse to do anything about it, refuse to say anything about it, refuse to take a stand, then we let hate win.
Fear is what keeps us silent. We fear such hate, but are too often ignore hate as long as such hate is not projected towards us. We fear that if we get too involved, if we are vocal, if we take a stand, then such hate will be projected towards us. Such a view ignores that humanity is interconnected. That is why, in spite of such hate, violence, and terror that we have witnessed in Paris over the past week and we found comfort in coming together and refusing to be a bystander.
Yesterday, we witnessed a historic unity march against extremism take place in Paris with more than forty world leaders present. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas marched alongside France’s President Hollande, along with millions of citizens. Millions more took to social media showing unity through hashtag activism. Such a show of support at a time of mourning, such a show of unity at a time of sorrow, is our universal statement, declaring that we refuse to stand idly by when one is killed because of what he says, looks like, believes in, or whom he loves. Standing up in such a manner is doing exactly what Moses did.
This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Shemot, the Torah portion of Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus. This familiar story retold yearly at Passover seders, tells the life of Moses, a Hebrew baby adopted by the Pharaoh daughter, before seeing injustice before him which ultimately leads to him standing up, and fleeing Egypt as a result. We learn in Exodus chapter 2 of Moses growing up and going out to see the burden of the Israelites, of his brethren. Upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, we read in Exodus 2:12:
And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.
At first read, we understand that Moses looked all around and wanted to make sure that no one was looking. Once he saw that no one was around, he took a stand, smiting the Egyptian taskmaster. However, such a reading is incorrect. How is it possible that no man was around? In the very next verse, Moses approaches two Israelites that are arguing. They respond in fear that he will assault one of them as he did the Egyptian taskmaster. Clearly, someone must’ve seen what he did. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that this taskmaster and slave were alone in the middle of the desert. A more likely account is that they were surrounded by thousands, other slaves and other taskmasters, other examples of injustice. Why then does the text say that when Moses looked around, there was no man?
We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, 2:6, the teaching of Rabbi Hillel:
In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
I don’t like translating this teaching in this way. Such a translation is based on gender stereotypes and is outdated. However, if we replace the word “man” with the Yiddish word for “man” than it makes a lot more sense. Mensch. Mensch is the word we often use to mean a good person and righteous individual. However, its literal translation is “man.” Let us than retranslate this teaching:
In a place where there is no mensch, be a mensch.
In a place where there is no one willing to take a stand and put a stop to injustice, hate, violence, and terror, all the more so, you must, all the more so, we must. Thus, Moses saw many surrounding him and witnessing this taskmaster beat a slave just as he did. All continued to be bystanders. All continued to ignore hate, violence, terror, and injustice. Moses took a stand in unity, refusing to be a bystander.
Millions in France and across the world did the same yesterday. We must refuse to be bystanders and let our lives be dictated by hate and fear. We must come together in unity, and just as Moses did, take a stand.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky