Thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander

Posted on July 5, 2019

In the month of February a 15-year-old girl was forced to flee her country. She was too young to make this decision on her own, so her mother and step-father made the decision they felt was best for her. Her father died when she was just 8 months old, and while life had always been difficult, the last 6 years had been particularly hard as persecution, discrimination and suffering increased for her family. The decision to leave was not taken lightly. Her grandmother, whom she loved dearly, was left behind. When she arrived in her new country, she immediately destroyed her identity card and was taken to live separately from her parents.

That girl was my grandmother. Erica was born in Berlin in 1923, and at the age of 10 the Nazi party came to power. At the age of 15, she witnessed the events of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and less than a year later she was beginning her life anew in London, living in a hostel for young Jewish women financed by members of the West London Synagogue, where years later I would serve as a Rabbi. She never saw her grandmother again, who perished at Theresienstadt in August 1942.

I carry her story with me. Because this is not only her story. It is also my story. And it is our story.

What is the Jewish story?

From the very beginning our story has been one of lech lecha – a people called to leave their homeland and to travel to a distant place in search of a Promised Land. Arami oved avi – my father was a wandering Aramean. This journey began with Abraham and Sarah and it has continued throughout the generations ever since.

We found ourselves in Egypt where initially things were good, but soon we faced persecution and hardship – we were forced to leave and begin the never-ending journey towards the Promised Land. Yes there have been times when we have reached the place we dreamed about, but it wasn’t long before once again we were searching for a new place to call home, a new place that would accept us, a new place that would provide us with refuge. For my grandmother it was the journey from Germany to England. In other generations they were fleeing England, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan – you name the country and in all likelihood there has been a time when Jews settled there and a time when Jews fled from there.

Throughout Torah we are reminded that we were slaves in Egypt; we were strangers in the land of Egypt and God rescued us from that place. This is not the central narrative because it was their story, it is repeated again and again throughout the Torah because it is our story. It has been our story for countless generations. We have survived as a people because we have run from persecution and sought refuge in whatever country or place would welcome us in.

Today I do not want to talk about politics or immigration policies. I do not have the answers for these intractable problems. But I do know that as Jews we are called to action and that the Torah teaches us that we must never stand idly by. My heart breaks as today I see children separated from their families. I see children who are living in intolerable conditions. And I see children whose eyes are pleading with us to take action and do something.

I look at these children as someone who would not be standing here today if his grandmother had been unable to find refuge when fleeing from persecution. I look at these children and I have realized that I am hugging my own children that bit more tightly and for that moment longer. I look at these children and I know that we are failing them for every additional day that they remain imprisoned, separated from their families.

On Rosh Hashanah I stood here in this community and declared that the problem with our society is encapsulated in the sign “Drive like your kids live here.” The sign imagines that we will only drive carefully to protect our own children. The sign imagines that we do not care about another person’s child. The sign imagines that there is no empathy for the suffering or pain of another person. As I said then, we need to have a sign that simply says, “drive like kids live here.” We need to approach the world and everyone in it with a sense of empathy.
I quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who once said that when faced with another person’s suffering, people too often ask “if I stop to help this person, what will happen to me?” He posited that the question we should be asking is “If I do not stop to help this person, what will happen to him?”[1] He is correct, our primary question should be about the person who is suffering; but I am starting to worry that the former question is also relevant – what will happen to us if we ignore what is happening right before our eyes.

Over this past week I have been struck by the reports of various Jewish organizations who have participated in protests where the slogan “Never Again” has been shouted repeatedly. In the Holocaust education of my youth I think that there was a real concern about the potential for a second Holocaust against the Jewish community. But over the years since then I have seen the meaning of those two words expand to become a clarion call against genocide wherever we might find it. And today for the Jewish youth who have chanted these words at protests and demonstrations it is about the way we treat the stranger, the suffering that people are being forced to endure, and what might happen if we do nothing.
The Holocaust historian and scholar, Professor Yehuda Bauer, famously suggested in the aftermath of the Holocuast we must add three additional commandments to the original Ten: “thou shalt not be a perpetrator; thou shalt not be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander.”[2]

When children are being kept behind bars, separated from their families, and lacking for many of life’s basic necessities it is not the time to have a semantic debate about equivalency and the appropriateness of language and terminology. When this is the situation we face, the only thing to do is to heed Bauer’s commandment thou shalt never, but never be a bystander. We must do something.

I do not know what we can do to solve the problem or to fix the situation. But I am grateful to CJP, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, for taking the lead and establishing the Fund for Detained Children. In their own words “CJP is committed to taking care of the stranger, because we know from our own experience what it is like to be immigrants, what it is like to flee, and what it is like to be vulnerable. Showing compassion to those who are suffering is core to our story and our value system.”[3] It might not fix the problem, but it will certainly help those who are suffering.

A Hassidic story tells that there once was a Rabbi who was asked by his students, “Teacher, how should one determine the hour when night ends and day begins?”

One student suggested, “Is it when one can distinguish a sheep from a dog in the distance?” “No,” said the Rabbi, “It is not.”

A second student ventured, “Is it when one can distinguish a date tree from a fig tree in the distance?” “No,” said the Rabbi.

“Please tell us the answer,” the students begged.

“It is when you can look into the face of a stranger and see your sister or brother,” said the Rabbi. “Until then night is still with us.”[4]

[1] He made reference to this in talking about the Good Samaritan in his “I have been to the mountaintop” speech –