Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Apathy and Us

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Some questions boggle the mind. No matter how often we contemplate them, they leave us totally stymied.
One of those unfathomable questions concerns the world’s apathy during the Holocaust years. How was it possible that as millions of Jews were being murdered, the world stood by and watched without a murmur of protest, without lifting a finger to help the victims?
Yes, a few heroic individuals tried to sound the alarm and halt the killings. Their names are quite familiar to us, but they are lonely exceptions on a bleak landscape of indifference. We read the history of that era and wonder how apathy of such magnitude could have been possible in the face of so much horror. We try to find a rationale; we would like to believe there is something wrong with the story.
Indeed, the only thing wrong with the story is that it is true. Millions of Jews and others were systematically tortured and killed as a callous world went about its business.
Still, one can rise to the defense of that generation by recalling that many people were not aware of the magnitude of the crimes being committed. The media was not as open or as global as it is now. The New York Times did not have a blaring front page headline documenting the slaughter of the Jews day by day.
In addition, telecommunication was in its nascent stage and people were unable to transmit what they knew to the masses. Jews were not as wealthy and influential as many are today. Many were impoverished refugees, working themselves to the bone to put bread on the table to feed their starving children. They were so consumed with the effort to stay afloat and to care for their families that they had no time or strength to fight for others, even had they the ability to do so.
None of those excuses apply today. As the threats to our existence multiply, nobody today can claim ignorance. No one can say, “I don’t know what’s going on.” No one can say that we are a nation of poor, disheveled souls on the run. No one in our day and age can feign impotence in the face of impending doom.
Face it, we are apathetic. We suffer from abundance, affluence and plentitude. The golus is so good to us, boruch Hashem, that we can’t pause to visualize how drastically different our circumstances could be. In all of our history in the Diaspora, there probably has never been a period when Jews were as well off as we are now.
We read about our brethren in Sderot, Israel, being bombarded every day by Kassam rockets and we turn the page without shedding a tear. We read of an 8-year-old boy who had part of his leg blown off this past Shabbos and it breaks our hearts, but we flip the page and seek out the ads for Pesach in Cancun or some other exotic locale where we can pamper ourselves with a stamp of approval.
We watch in resignation as an illegitimate prime minister, heading a misbegotten government elected on a platform of sham and held together with avarice and corruption, bargains away portions of Eretz Yisroel. Nobody rises in protest. We all seek peace in our daily lives and as a people, and understand that shalom is a paramount virtue, but we know that the road map the government currently follows will lead to neither reconciliation nor a cessation of bloodletting.
We, and so many others, warned that Gaza would turn into a terror enclave if Israel pulled out, but those in charge didn’t listen. Evacuating Gaza would lead to peace, the leaders of nations said. All of them, from Israeli hero Ariel Sharon to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, gushed over the prospects for tranquility that would result from making that small section of the world Judenrein and adopting Palestinian democracy there. Tens of thousands of Jews were unceremoniously chased out of their homes; their towns were chopped up and turned over to their tormentors.
Jewish settlers were cursed by the government and a compliant media for standing in the way of progress; it is their fault that radical Islam seeks to destroy Israel and the US. When Israel pulls out of Gaza, a new day will dawn and the peace that has eluded us for decades will break forth across the Middle East, world leaders promised.
Of course, it was nothing more than empty rhetoric and delusional thinking on the part of men driven by a delirious lust for power, adulation and prestige.
That was then. Then we could have said we didn’t know, that we erred and had poor judgment. We could have justified our misguided pacifism by arguing that it was worth a try; that government leaders know better than rank and file citizens.
A case could be made that it was correct to give those leaders the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we can be forgiven for looking aside from their faulty logic, their failed subterfuge, and the connivances they employed to gain governmental and parliamentary approval for their plan.
But now we know. This time we have no excuses. Now, as Olmert and Livni negotiate away the country’s security, no one can say they didn’t know. It can no longer be argued with a straight face that they have the best interests of the country at heart. They lie, they cheat, and they try to fool everyone around them into ignoring the bitter facts.
They ignore that Abbas is a failed and weak leader who is powerless and uninterested in stopping terror. They ignore that the Palestinians seek nothing less than complete capitulation of the Jewish state. Some desire it to collapse in one fell swoop and the more moderate ones are willing to see it take place in piecemeal fashion.
They promise not to divide Yerushalayim, while it is an open secret that this is exactly the plan. Shas sits in the government which allows the security of 6 million Jews to be bargained away as it willfully ignores the obvious facts.
A Ramallah PA official tells The Jerusalem Post on the record that “The main progress has been achieved during the secret talks, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem. Today we can say that Israel is prepared to withdraw from almost all the Arab neighborhoods and villages in Jerusalem. Israel is prepared to re-divide Jerusalem and this is a positive development.”
Makor Rishon reports that Foreign Minister Livni has explicitly confirmed that in secret negotiations with the Palestinians they are dealing with “all core-issues, including Jerusalem.” And the erstwhile minister confirmed that the negotiations contradict the commitments Olmert gave to Shas.
But Shas is unfazed. Its spokesman, Roi Lachmanovitch continues to peddle hollow assurances that “Nobody is talking about Yerushalayim. As soon as they talk about Yerushalayim, Shas will leave the government.”
Refusing to label Livni a liar, he resorted to double-speak. “I am not saying she is lying - but I am saying that nobody is negotiating Jerusalem.”
And then another day’s news cycle comes and everyone’s attention slips to something else and the charade continues.
The same turpitude prevails with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons with which it vows to wipe out Israel. Everyone knows Iran’s game plan—they have been announcing it for years—yet everyone buries their heads and tries to banish reality by engaging in diplomatic gibberish. World leaders content themselves with issuing a few tough-sounding but meaningless, pathetic speeches.
Apathy coupled with a leadership vacuum—this is the scourge of our prosperous, weak-willed world.
The reason no one rises up in Israel to protest Olmert and force his overdue resignation from office is because there isn’t a single real leader to rally around. There is no one who can effectively coalesce the opposition forces to the current government. Netanyahu is just as inept and ego-driven as the others. In place of a genuine leader, he represents a poor substitute. Without leadership giving them a voice and unifying them into a real force, people sit at home, apathetic and brooding in despair.
For an example of how people rally around someone with even a modest degree of charisma, let us take a look at the current political campaign in this country. Barack Hussein Obama, basically just another inexperienced politician, has become a cult figure racking up one primary victory after another and generating more cash and delegates than any other candidate. Through his masterful speeches, this one-term senator motivates thousands and touches their hearts and souls. He speaks of change, of hope, of leading the country to a better time. And the people follow.
They don’t ask for details; they don’t ask how he will do it. He speaks to their aspirations. He issues an appealing invitation to hop aboard his campaign and be swept along on a journey to a better place. As more people hear the message, they join the campaign, giving it more energy and enabling it to expand even more. It is my contention that if he wins the Democratic Party nomination, he will go on to win the presidency in a landslide.
Obama leads by inspiring the masses to believe that although they may be ordinary, they can accomplish extraordinary things if they follow him. He tells them that their dream will be attainable if they strive towards it. “Change, change, change,” they chant in unison. “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” is their mantra.
By contrast, the Israeli people lack a political leader who can excite and rally them together. They therefore languish in alienated contemptuousness and vacillation. But we can’t use that as an excuse for our own lethargic indifference toward anything that threatens to shake up our equanimity.
There are so many people who suffer in our midst, and we turn away and pretend not to notice. There are so many people we all know who could use our moral and financial support, yet we ignore them and their silent pleas. We avoid eye contact with people we know are longing for us to acknowledge them and their needs.
Apathy and pure indifference are coupled with a lack of interest or concern about what other people are experiencing because we are too infatuated with ourselves and our own lives. We are so consumed by our labors to make it in this land of plenty that we have no time or strength left over for others less fortunate than us. We become numb and impervious to their hurt and hunger.
Late one Sunday evening, I answered a knock on my door, something I don’t usually do. There was a Yerushalmi melamed standing there seeking a donation. Before I knew it, there was a second Yerushalmi melamed there and then a third came running. I felt as if I were under attack. I sent one of my family members to retrieve my wallet which I had already put away for the day.
As I stood there waiting for my wallet to be found, I made small talk with the three gentlemen. I asked them if they needed the bathroom, or a drink perhaps. I was able to convince the first one to accept a can of soda he could drink later, but the second one wanted nothing. The third asked for a tea. “Oh no,” I said to myself. “It’s so late and you’re so tired. Why did you have to open your big mouth? Now you’re going to be stuck with them.”
The man had his tea and everyone had some mezonos. We sat around talking for 45 minutes about the cheder they teach in, and about Yerushalayim and related matters. Finally, even they agreed that it was late and decided it was time to get on their way.
But altogether as one, as they rose from their seats, they said, “Before we leave, you have to answer one question. What mitzvah did you do before we came that you were zoche to be mehaneh us like this?” I laughed, not realizing that they were serious.
“We were shlepping around all day, going door to door, getting quarters and dollar bills, if anything. We are all so desperate for help; we were at the breaking point,” they said. “You took us in and treated us like people; you were mamesh mechayeh us. You must tell us what you did to have that zechus, and then we’ll leave.”
I am far from a tzaddik, and I very rarely spend so much time, if any, with people who come to my door. But that day, I really did have a zechus for I gained a whole new understanding of what it means to be “mitchashev” with another Jew.
That night, I realized what it means to make a person feel like a person. I gained a new perspective on what it means to be hungry, destitute and lonely in a strange country, far from home. I grasped how vulnerable a person feels having to rely on the compassion of strangers for a cookie, a cup of tea and a few dollars. That night, I understood the cost of apathy to a pure and holy Jew, who, through no fault of his own, becomes a traveling noh venod.
The problems that confront our world are too great for any of us to tackle and they are not easily solved. In terms of concrete action, there is not a great deal any of us can do to alleviate the suffering of Jews in Sderot or Yerushalayim. There isn’t much we can do to change the minds of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But what we can do is care. We can share the pain. We can daven, we can write letters, and we can vote for the right people.
We have to care. We have to do more than shrug our shoulders and turn the page. We can devote ourselves to acts of charity and kindness and pray that the merit of our caring will shield and deliver us from all that plagues us.


Post a Comment

<< Home