The Commandment to Be an Upstander

Ki Tetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 9, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

In July, 1994, I returned to Esslingen, the medieval town not far from Stuttgart, Germany where my mother was born. My grandfather ran a boarding school and enjoyed a regional reputation as an innovative educator. The handsome building which housed it still serves as a school, though no longer Jewish, and bears his name, bestowed by the city fathers a decade earlier in a spirit of contrition. That summer, school and city officials commemorated the 50th anniversary of my grandfather’s death in Theresienstadt, and invited me to speak at the event held on the premises of the school in the room which had once been its synagogue.

It was not the only synagogue in Esslingen. That of the community, a modest, nondescript house, was located in the center of town. While on the infamous night of November 9–10, the mob plundered my grandfather’s school, it also burned the synagogue. What I will never forget from my visit is the film clip depicting the reaction of local Germans the day after.

The film was part of a small Jewish exhibit mounted at city hall to coincide with the commemoration. Not longer than two or three minutes, the film could have been shot by a curious onlooker or even a government news service. It focused not on the heavily damaged synagogue, but on well dressed German men and women strolling to see the sight. No trace of agitation in their gait; no dismay on their faces. They could just as easily have been going to church or to the theater or a museum. Everything was being taken in stride. The calamity that had befallen their neighbors evoked neither anger nor protest. The unperturbed ordinariness of their behavior captured for me the indifference of the bystander. To carry out the Final Solution, the Nazis needed the willful non–involvement of untold numbers of bystanders.

The Yiddish idiom – machen sich nit wissendik (to pose as unknowing) – is the best definition of the bystander that I know. The bystander is a person who feigns ignorance, indeed, acts contrary to what he knows by repressing his nobler instincts. The Yiddish idiom appears to be based on an explosive admonition that occurs in our parasha: “You must not remain indifferent (Deut. 22:3).” Within the space of four verses, the Torah invokes the verb – lehitalem, to be indifferent by feigning ignorance – three times. The context is prosaic; the principle far–reaching.

“If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it (Deut. 22:1–4).”

The sequence of the verbs in this passage is critical. Indifference is preceded by seeing. We first see our neighbor’s animal in distress and then pretend we didn’t. Without that prior awareness, we would not be culpable. In his cryptic commentary, Rashi stresses twice the intervention of willful denial: “kovesh ayin, he subdues his eyes as if he saw nothing (Deut. 22:1, 3),” giving rise to the Yiddish idiom.

Our failure to comply with this biblical standard is hardly punishable in a court of law. How could one go about proving that sight had preceded sin? The Torah’s appeal is to conscience. The individual is both defendant and judge. Or in rabbinic parlance (as opposed to biblical) we would one day be held accountable in the Court of Divine Law for having violated the social compact by dealing heartlessly with kith and kin. In this context, the Torah addresses the inner disposition from which action flows. Our instinctive response is not to take the time or trouble to get involved. The prospect of personal gain only compounds our inertia while mortal fear strikes us with complete paralysis. Morality requires overcoming our baser selves.

The bystander is unpunishable but always compromised. In an early novel, The Town Beyond the Wall, Elie Wiesel gave flesh to the phenomenon. Michael returns to Hungary, to the town of Szerencsevaros, to confront the neighbor from behind his curtains who witnessed the great roundup of Jews in the courtyard of the synagogue without offering so much as a glass of water. When he finally meets his nemesis, Michael unleashes his pent–up indictment.

“You’re a shameful coward! You haven’t got the courage to do either good or evil! The role of spectator suited you to perfection. They killed? You had nothing to do with it. They looted the houses like vultures? You had nothing to do with it. Children were thirsty? You had nothing to do with it. Your conscience is clear. ‘Not guilty, your honor!’ You’re a disgusting coward! You hedge: you want to be on the winning side no matter what! It’s easy to say ‘I am I and they are they and to hell with them!’ It’s comfortable to say, ‘It’s all a fraud, they’re only playing a game.’ And who gave you the right to judge who’s playing and who isn’t, who’s dying and who’s just pretending? Who taught you so well to distinguish between suffering and the appearance of suffering (Avon Books, p. 169)?”

Though there is no guarantee as to how we might respond in a moment of testing, to habituate ourselves to doing good deeds surely offers some hope.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch