Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and the Curse of Indifference

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 3 september 2021

In the last century during which our people narrowly escaped total extinction, the most remarkable thing in all of history happened. As in a dream, we, Jews, were privileged to return to our ancient homeland after nearly 2,000 years of exile. We now have our own army to defend us, and many of us live in great comfort and joy, with opportunities that we, as Jews, could never have envisioned.

This is nothing less than an astounding blessing that God has granted us; an open miracle. And we wonder why our generation has been so privileged when our ancestors, who were much more pious than we are or ever will be, ended up in the gas chambers.

But here too lies our greatest nisayon (trial and challenge). Living under these miraculous conditions (which we really do not merit), we are in great danger of falling prey to the curse of indifference; indifference to the miserable and impossible situation of our fellow humans who are threatened by suffering and death.

We live in a world of incredible turmoil, where tens if not hundreds of thousands, including many young children, are murdered, mutilated, or terribly ill, due to lack of proper medical care. Women, men, and children are dying of hunger. Others are beheaded and tortured. The Corona epidemic has overtaken us and has created a huge upheaval in our world.

Wherever we look, whether in Syria or Afghanistan or other countries, we see enormous pain, suffering and death. We hear about hurricanes, floods causing millions of people to lose their homes and flee from their native countries.

For us Jews, this is especially alarming. For thousands of years we have been victims of the most cruel atrocities. In the Holocaust we lost millions of our sisters and brothers.

To this day, we Jews are justifiably outraged beyond description by how the world was indifferent to our fate. The screams of millions of victims from the crematoria were, with few exceptions, ignored. We feel intense animosity toward Pius XII, 'Hitler’s Pope', for failing to call on millions of his Catholic followers to protect the Jews and stand up against the ferocious murderer.

"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference", said Elie Wiesel (US News & World Report, October 27, 1986).

Since we are by far the most extraordinary nation on the globe, consisting of less than one percent of the world population, and, in Mark Twain's words, nothing more than "a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way" ("Concerning the Jews," Harper's Magazine, September 1899), and having outlived all our enemies for thousands of years, we carry an enormous responsibility to be highly sensitive to the suffering of our fellow humans. Not for nothing are we the Chosen People. Because we have experienced, as no other nation, to what indifference can lead, it is our duty, more than anybody else, to care about our fellow human beings and be an example for the rest of the world.

In the preface to Sefer Bereshit of his magnum opus, Ha’amek Davar on the Torah, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (1817-1893), the last Rosh HaYeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, makes the powerful point that the greatness of our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and no doubt our matriarchs, was the fact that they cared about the well-being of the gentiles in their day, even if they were idolaters. One example is the famous story of Avraham arguing with God to save the people of Sedom, who had fallen to the lowest possible level of moral behavior. Nothing stopped Avraham from trying to save these people, even if it meant having a real argument with God Himself (Bereshit 18: 20-33). The Netziv adds that this is why Avraham is called the “father of a multitude of nations” (Bereshit 17:4).

But this is not merely a compliment; it is a deeply religious mission for all the People of Israel. To be an example to the world, and to stand up for all those innocents who have fallen victim to the unspeakable evil of others.

It is for this reason that Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his monumental codex, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 576:1), legislated the law that in times of catastrophe, one should fast and lessen one’s pleasures, based on the Talmudic statement: “When the community is in trouble, a person should not say: I will go to my house, I will eat and drink and all will be well with me” (Taanit 11a).

To this principle we, Jews, have declared our allegiance.

The State of Israel has gone out of its way to help victims of war wherever they take place. It has sent soldiers and medical staff to every corner of the world, to save and treat people trapped in earthquakes and hurricanes. For a small country like ours, it is unprecedented. But this is exactly why we Jews are on earth: to care, to fight complacency, and to break free of self-satisfaction.

While practical actions must be taken to help these victims, by ending the bloodshed and torture, and by giving them medical and financial support, we all know that this may not always work. Ultimately, some matters remain in God's hands. And that is why we pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the wellbeing of all human beings with the hope that God will bring an end to these horrors.

To speak about God and to God while remaining silent about what happens to millions of victims of all sorts of evil around the world is blasphemous.

We cannot stay silent if we hold the world responsible for its silence while we were slaughtered throughout history, and specifically during the Holocaust.

Let us pray for others, lest the Ribono shel Olam will be indifferent, God forbid, to our prayers for this coming year.

At the beginning of this new year, we can prove once more how great and truthful our nation is by caring for all those suffering non-Jews. In that way our children will take an example from us and be proud of us.

“The opposite of love is not hate but indifference.” Let’s not forget!

Shana tova, and tizku leshanim rabot.

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