Where is Everybody?

By: Rabbi Yisrael Baron

(Published February 17, 2014 Sunny Isles Beach Community Newspapers)


Pharaoh had an immigrant problem. The Hebrews who had moved to Ancient Egypt were now multiplying at an alarming rate. “The country will be run over by foreigners! They will drive us from our land!” Forget that it was one of their own, Joseph, who as viceroy had saved the entire country from devastation by famine.  If Pharaoh had a problem, he was entitled to a solution. Something like a Final Solution. Enslave them, persecute them, and throw all their newborn sons into the Nile. That's how, one fine morning, baby Moses found himself floating in a basket at the river's edge. And then, like an angel, Batya, daughter of Pharaoh, drew him from the river, saved him, raised him, and changed the course of history forever.


A news story! One person—a princess at that—saving an innocent child from death. Beautiful. But where was everyone else? Unfortunately, like history has shown, persecution of a minority generally requires willing accomplices and public approval. The Egyptians of the time were all in on the game. Batya, by taking a moral stand, was indeed an anomaly. She chose to be an angel, a messenger of G‑d, while the rest of the world was quiet, if not complicit. Sound familiar?


Since my mother is a holocaust survivor who managed to hide from the Nazis as a young child in occupied France, this message is so much more relevant to me. Only on account of people who were willing to risk their lives to save Jews from a modern day Pharaoh and his "final solution" was my mother able to survive. This year Yad Vashem located on Mount Herzel in Jerusalem celebrates sixty years as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust. More important is the beacon of light that emerged from the devastation. This year, Yad Vashem also celebrates fifty years since the founding of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, where to date close to 25,000 gentiles have been recognized for risking their lives to save Jews.


These days perhaps we don’t deal as often with such hostility and virulent hatred. What we do still often encounter is apathy. When something is going wrong, do we step in to fix it or do we ignore it?  Do we perhaps even take advantage of it? Simple morality teaches us to care, to do what's right, to do the G‑dly thing. It shouldn't take an angel or a hero, but it does take a conscious act of conscience that is not always easy.


I once went to a wedding in a hall that had two floors. The kids were supposed to be supervised in a play room on the ground level, while the adults celebrated upstairs. I stepped out to get a break from the music and the dancing, and saw two very young boys having the time of their lives. They were climbing high up the ballroom stairs but from the outside of the staircase, which was set off by a glass railing. Horrified, I called out to them to stop, but the boys ignored me and continued their fun, oblivious to the danger it involved. I watched with my heart in my mouth as they climbed up out of my reach to the second floor, crawled over the banister back into safety, and ran back down the stairs to start again.


I looked around for the parents or supervisor, but no one fit the bill. All the while people were walking by, but no one seemed to notice or care. It’s me or no one, I realized, and I’m not about to let an accident happen simply because of neglect or my discomfort. I put on my sternest face, stood right in front of the boys, and with a serious, persistent voice made it very clear that their game was over. They were not old enough to communicate who their parents were, but I warned them that I was keeping an eye out, and would come back to check as well. I must have been frightening enough because they listened.


The incident left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy to have had a chance to avert a catastrophe, but at the same time I was disillusioned. Why did no one else stop and intervene before I came along? True, I am a parent and it’s what I would want someone else to do for my kids—but other parents had also walked by without blinking an eyelid. To some degree, perhaps societal conditioning has gotten us used to minding our own business, and this spills over into minding our own business even in situations where intervention is appropriate. Should it be this way? You and I are the ones who can change this attitude.