Tag Archives: Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

Israel’s aid to wounded Syrians shines light in world of indifference

9 Aug
The Israel-Syrian border

The Israeli-Syrian border


One of Elie Wiesel’s most eloquent, prophetic statements is: “The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.”

In following current events, there is a hardly any place on earth where the world as a whole has shown more indifference than Syria. The tragedy of the civil war there is beyond measure. The brutality of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad knows no bounds. According to estimates he has slaughtered over 100,000 of his own people over the last two years in his desperate effort to cling to power. The only tragedy greater than the loss of life in this conflict is the world’s indifference to it. I say this with great sensitivity to the fragile situation. It’s easy to blame our government and others for not intervening more than it has on behalf of the uprising, though I understand the caution on their part. The United States fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were costly in both blood and treasure, and our nation is understandably war-weary. Our economy is weak, and we have a lot of nation-building to do at home. Furthermore, it’s hard to know exactly who the rebels are and what connections they might have to anti-Western Islamic fundamentalists. The presence of American boots on the ground in Syria could spark a direct war between the US and Assad’s chief patron, Iran, and Israel would face certain danger. What is happening in Syria, therefore, is a humanitarian and geo-political nightmare. Yes, there are all of these grave concerns. And yes, the world has still been indifferent.

In the midst of this impossible situation in Syria, the New York Times published a report this week that provides a glimmer of hope. Scores of Syrians injured in the fighting have been discreetly spirited across the border into Israel for advanced medical treatment. This story is remarkable given the official state of war between Israel and Syria and the tight security around the border. According to the report, the first patients were young men in their 20’s and 30’s who were suffering from gunshot wounds. More and more, women and children are also being treated for injuries sustained in explosions.

While Israel is careful not to open its borders to refugees as Turkey and Jordan have done, the Israeli government has authorized and is picking up the bill for the treatment of these wounded Syrians. They are careful to protect their identity out of fear that when they return to Syria they will face abuse for accepting treatment in Israel.  Details as to how the Syrians are crossing into and out of Israel are not entirely known, except that this humanitarian operation is coordinated by the Israeli military.

It would be easy for Israel to seal its border completely and not allow anyone in. Israel has an official policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. And yet, with the background of the Syrian cauldron of hatred and war, we find Israel bringing a semblance of peace, compassion and healing.  When it would be politically expedient for Israel to be indifferent to Arabs in surrounding countries slaughtering each other, Israel is not indifferent.

Indeed, the Torah instructs us not to stand idly by the blood of your neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16: 18-21: 9), a portion dedicated to establishing a just society, expands on this theme and concludes with a peculiar ritual surrounding an unsolved murder. The text reads:

“If…someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. The elders of the town nearest the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke and…they shall break the heifer’s neck….Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken….And they shall declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel’” (Deut. 21: 1-9).

In the context in which this text was written, the spilling of innocent blood pollutes the Land of Israel and causes the Divine Presence to leave the community’s midst. In the absence of prosecuting the murderer, the ritual of the eglah arufah (broken-necked heifer) fills the void created by the murder in the community’s pursuit of justice. In modern terminology, the ritual is intended to provide a sense of closure following a senseless act. It also forces the community to bear the burden of responsibility for the breach of justice among their neighbors. The town elders ask for forgiveness that they may have caused in some way the death of a single human being.

Regarding the elders’ statement, “Our hands have not shed this blood,” R. Yitzhak Meir Bunim, a Hasidic sage comments:

“If a murdered person is found, the elders of the city have to make confession, as stated in this verse. They are to an extent to blame, for if they had led the people better such a tragedy would not have occurred. While the word in Hebrew for “have shed” is read as shaf’khu, in the plural, it is written in the traditional Hebrew text as shaf’kha, in the singular. This is because the elders are never able to say that “we did everything possible with our two hands to prevent such an event.” Whatever we did was with only one hand, and we will always be to blame for not having done enough” (A. Greenberg, Ed., Torah Gems, Vol. 3, p. 268).

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz writes on this portion in Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion: “The Torah instructs us not to be bystanders. It teaches us not to profess indifference. If there is any way for us to make a difference in the world, then we must act immediately. If there is a life to be saved, a person to be fed, a sojourner to be housed, a solitary individual needing hospitality, we must be there. While the elders were not suspected of actual murder, they could not even profess indifference to the plight of another human being.”

As the world looks upon the Syrian blood bath with indifference, the Israeli medical response is an inspiration that the world does not have to accept the status quo. It’s my sincere hope that Israel’s modest but significant action will remind the world not to be bystanders, not to be indifferent.

As Wiesel states: “Indifference is never an option. It is not the beginning of a process; it is the end of a process. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of education is not ignorance; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. The opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”


Shelah-Lekha: “Being Honest to Oneself and Others”

31 May


(Derived from sermon by same title by Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El: Highland Park, IL, 2013, pp. 205-207

Last week, during the long weekend, I was a good dad, and I took my boys to see the new Star Trek movie: “Into Darkness.” For me, there was definitely an element of nostalgia I grew up watching the reruns of the original series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Now a new cast was playing the same characters, and I could share this piece of Americana with my children. For both boys, it was their first exposure to Star Trek, so I was interested in seeing how they would react. One son loved it, as did I. He loved the action and the complex plot. He’s practically on his way to becoming a full-fledged Trekkie, and next Passover, when we fulfill a family tradition of reciting the four questions in multiple languages, he will probably be the one to recite them in Klingon. The other son had a very different response. He hated it. He said there was too much action and that he didn’t understand the story. At the end of the film as Captain Kirk was reciting “Space, the final frontier…” I was reciting the captain’s oath along with him. The son who didn’t like the film shushed me.

Whose perspective was correct–the one who liked the movie or the one who didn’t? Well, part of me certainly says of course I was correct—it was a great movie! In a larger sense, though, it’s an amazing feature of the human condition that two people can sit in the same dark movie theater at the same time, hear the same sounds and watch the same images, and interpret the movie completely differently.

Parashat Shelah-Lekha teaches us that truth can easily be found in the eye of the beholder. The parashah describes how Moses dispatched twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan. They return with identical reports concerning the beauty of the land: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). All the scouts agree on the objective data. But the interpretation of the data brings about disagreement. The majority, ten of the scouts, report that they would not be successful in their attempt to conquer the inhabitants. But Caleb and Joshua disagree: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). All see the same facts and, yet, come to different conclusions. If the majority report is correct, then Caleb and Joshua are mistaken; if the latter are right, then the former are wrong.

So often, the truth is hard to find, difficult to discover, and almost impossible to evaluate. A mentor of mine, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, in a recently published collection of sermons, notes that when we find praises of truth in the Bible, they often refer to three kinds of truthfulness: truthfulness to God, to one’s fellow and to oneself.

How can we be truthful to God? After all, can we hide anything from God even if we wanted to? Rambam offers an interpretation on Leviticus that sheds light on the relationship between religion and inner truth. The Torah states that a good animal set aside for a sacrifice must not be exchanged for an animal of inferior quality. Similarly, an inferior animal may not be exchanged for one of superior quality. Rambam suggests that being truthful to God means that we must give the best we can.

A story illustrates the Rambam’s point. A wealthy man was sailing a ship that was besieged by a violent storm. The man began to pray to God: “Dear God, if I survive this voyage, then I shall give all my wealth to charity.” The storm soon abated. The man then had second thoughts. “Perhaps,” he said to himself, “I shall only give away one-half of what I own.” Immediately the storm began anew. He looked up to the heavens and declared, “Dear God, can’t you tell I was only fooling?” Being truthful to God means establishing high ideals and living by them.

The second aspect of truthfulness is integrity in one’s dealings with others. The Torah emphasizes the need to be truthful and just in all our relationships and business dealings: “You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures” (Deuteronomy 25:15). Ethical behavior is the rule in all our business and commercial endeavors as well as in our relationships with others.

The words we utter must be truthful, and we should be loyal to our word. A story is told about a man who married a woman because he was promised a dowry of $25,000 by her father. After the wedding, the father-in-law took his new son-in-law aside and gave him the check. “Son, now that you are part of the family, I want you to know that we keep no secrets from one another. We always tell the truth. The check I just gave you, it’s no good. It isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Being truthful to one’s fellow dictates honesty and absolute integrity in all matters: in words, in thoughts, and in actions.

The third aspect of truthfulness is being true to oneself. Too often, we are prone to rationalize our failings and find excuses for not being able to achieve personal goals of success.

A Peanuts cartoon strip shows Peppermint Patty calling Charlie Brown on the telephone. “Guess what, Chuck,” she said. “Today was the first day of school, and I got sent to the principal’s office. It was your fault, Chuck.” “My fault?” he responded. “How could it be my fault? Why do you always say everything is my fault?” “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me.”

Being truthful to oneself suggests the need to admit personal failures and mistakes. Scapegoating may bring a temporary sense of relief, but it won’t do anything for ultimate success. The Kotzker Rebbe believed that the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” should be interpreted as “Thou shalt not steal from thyself.” This wisdom has echoes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the line “To thine own self be true.”

The Talmud in Shabbat 55a states: “The seal of the Holy One, blessed by He is truth.” In all that matters, we must be truthful: to God, to our fellow human beings, and to ourselves.

Perhaps this was the grave sin of the spies in today’s parashah. Their data were correct, but they colored the truth in such a way that it was impossible for them to be objective. They were not truthful to God. They didn’t give God the best they had, and they were prepared to settle for much less. They were not truthful to their fellow Israelites. And they were not truthful to themselves. They convinced themselves that they were bound to fail and were unable to assume personal responsibility for their actions.

So, you and I might watch a “Star Trek” movie together, and one might like it and the other not. We’ll have an honest discussion about it. But as we have our open dialogue and listen to each other, we need to be truthful to God, to one another and to ourselves. When we are truthful in these ways, we are much more likely to “live long and prosper.” Ken Yehi Ratzon.