[Sermon] Do not remain indifferent

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Yom Kippur – 9 October 2019


Lo tuchal l’hitaleym (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your peer. If your fellow Israelite does not live near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your peer claims it; then you shall give it back. You shall do the same with that person’s ass; you shall do the same with that person’s garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow Israelite loses and you find: Lo tuchal l’hitaleym – you must not remain indifferent.

Our Biblical readings for the morning and afternoon of Yom Kippur shift our thinking to ethical issues. Jonah provides the ultimate example of one trying to hide, from responsibility: personal and civic.

Rashi (Deut 22:3:1) states of Lo tuchal l’hitaleym, more literally translated, you may not hide yourself. This means: You must not cover your eyes, pretending not to see.

Jonah’s attention is drawn to a plight but chooses for himself flight. He wishes to deny knowledge and to avoid action that knowledge may demand of him. So, Jonah is a great read but why so important? Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, thinker and author, has as a key motif of his response to the Shoah: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Let us explore further such a statement.

The Sages recorded in the Talmud are mostly exercised by the minutiae of this law rather than its ethics per se. Naturally, as Liberal Jews, whilst interested in justice being done, we are also concerned with the wider lessons that might be drawn from the injunction. Following on from my Rosh Hashanah inclination towards Sepharad, Spain, let us look at three thinkers who choose to focus on an ethical interpretation of Lo tuchal l’hitaleym:

Turning first to Moses Maimonides (Philosopher, Physician, C. 12, Cordoba, Morocco, Egypt) in his Guide for the Perplexed (Part 3 40:4), who draws attention to the personal and civic qualities of this law.

    The object of the law of restoring lost property to its owner (Deut. 22:1-3) is obvious. In the first instance, it is in itself a good feature in a person’s character. Secondly, its benefit is mutual; for if a person does not return the lost property of their fellow, nobody will restore to them what they may lose, just as those who do not honour their parents cannot expect to be honoured by their children.

Bachya ibn Pakuda (Philosopher and Ethicist, C. 11, Zaragossa), expands the notion of mutuality to love. Restoring property, he says, is a fulfilment of the Torah’s instruction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:18)

    Property is an extension of each individual. It is like the limb of one’s body. Loving one’s neighbour means taking care of all that is important to them as you would want them to safeguard all that is important to you. Returning lost property is a demonstration of love and concern for one’s neighbours” (Fields, 149).

Aharon Halevi thought to be the C. 13 author of Sefer ha’Hinuch:

    [argues] that the commandment to return lost property is ‘fundamental’ and that ‘all society depends on it.’ It is not just a matter of one person taking care of another’s possessions or of ‘loving’ another. What is important here is the critical matter of ‘trust’ among human beings. A society depends upon the faith people place in one another. Without people feeling that they can rely upon one another – that others are looking out for what belongs to me and that I must look out for what belongs to them – society collapses into suspicion, selfishness, and bitter contention. Whether people return or keep lost articles,” says Halevi, “is a significant indication of a society’s health.” (Fields, 149)

Sefer ha’Hinuch’s approach seems to move beyond the particularism of the Torah’s language. The Torah uses the word akhicha, literally ‘your brother’ and above translated as your fellow Israelite. Sefer ha’Hinuch understands Lo tuchal l’hitaleym of universal intent and import.

At a moment when societies are becoming more introverted, building physical and cultural walls or fences and ostracising all perceived difference, how important a concept this is for us this Yom Kippur.

Let me say at this juncture, my aim is to provoke thought not guilt, action not paralysis. So just take a moment to consider all the ways rather than indifference or hiding oneself away, in which you have personally made a difference. No need to think of earth-shattering change – just small things when the reaction demonstrated appreciation for you.

While you consider that, I want to acknowledge from the many conversations we Clergy have with congregants, how busy so many are investing in other people beyond family. We are obviously proud as well about our sacred community: Being there for one another. You enable that simply by being a member of NPLS but more than that when you give yourself, either through our Care activities and being present at our services or in Cheder, enjoying NPLS Sings Rock or Singing for the Soul, Scrub Bashing on Mitzvah Day or supporting our work with refugees and the homeless: Because your presence matters, to the person who is alone or lonely and needs you and your interaction.

Thank you to everyone who has made such a difference this year. It is not just your rabbi who recognises your work but the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Faith and Society, that through FaithAction – a national network of faith and community-based organisations involved in social action – recently published a report, ‘How Faith-Based Organisations are Tackling Loneliness.’ The work of NPLS, its Care Team and its activities is recognised as one of eight case studies. Thank you to all who contribute.

As a community and congregation, I think that we show time and again how we can make a difference and yet I would like to give two examples of peoples that we have been largely indifferent to, though we share commonality other than humanity. I know that I could focus on climate catastrophe but you will hear about that elsewhere and I am trusting that none of us is indifferent or hiding away without changing our lifestyle and we will continue to speak on the

5779 was the year that I fell in love with, or at least became fascinated by, the Haredi community and in no small part to an unusual source. It was called Shtisel. In the words of the online magazine HeyAlma, “Who would’ve thought that in 2019, the world would be obsessed with a fictional ultra Orthodox family from Jerusalem?! Shtisel has captivated audiences across the world… This show has everything: love, betrayal, intrigue, a tortured artist played by dreamy Israeli actor Michael Aloni, and so much more. And yet what makes Shtisel so captivating is that it manages to portray the lives of those in the ultra-Orthodox community without fetishizing them.”

This summer I have read a good number of books relating to Haredi communities – you can read them too from our library in the Community Room. Yet I feel detached because yes they are Jewish and I am Jewish but we are poles apart. My concern is shared by those who have noticed that the dramatic increase in physical attacks in Brooklyn on Haredim has not registered a protest from the vast bulk of Jews in Manhattan or elsewhere. God forbid there would be another attack on a synagogue as there was horrifically in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood, whom we remember now in their first Days of Awe following that tragedy. Of Haredim, would our reaction be as visceral?

I appreciate that Haredim may not recognise us but should we not be concerned by attacks on any kind of Jew. A resolution for myself this year is not to be silent in such circumstances in the UK, for they do exist, but to reach out. I sort of think I may be ignored if I do so as a one-off but would persistence build a relationship?

Not dissimilar and even more difficult to comprehend was the situation of Travellers on Stones Orchard, Croxley Green, behind our home. It was not without good reason that the local community drew a sigh of relief when the Bailiff moved them on after a few days residence and disruption. But the words used to describe them by neighbours concerned me, words that have been used in the past against Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers, and Jews. Very different peoples perhaps but sharing tragedy. Perhaps reasons for us to volunteer for the Holocaust education programmes offered through NPLS and others.

More clear-cut perhaps is the situation of another group of people, though physically distant. In Xinjiang in Western China, it is claimed that up to 3 Million Uyghur women, children and men are imprisoned in concentration camps. The millions of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities have the misfortune to be the historic residents of Xinjiang, where 40% of Chinese natural resources are found. The Chinese State, in order to retain local control, has descended to mass abuse and what has been called ‘cultural genocide:’ aiming to eradicate Muslim practice and heritage and inculcating them in ‘mainstream’ Chinese views, language and support for the Communist Party.

The body of evidence, corroborating everyday degradation and dehumanisation grows daily and the Chinese do not even deny the existence of the camps rather claiming them as a legitimate response to a threat of Uyghur extremism. Reports supported by satellite footage of tens of thousands transported by train from the Xinjiang camps thousands of miles into the heart of China, to other camps from which there is a total information black-out. Watching these scenes is shockingly reminiscent of footage of our own People in the hands of a pernicious State authority. Read in this Davar (our synagogue newsletter) Jonathan and Jane Drapkin, our members, have pressured their local MPs and have joined the weekly Jewish protest organised through René Cassin (Every Tuesday, 6pm to 7pm outside the Chinese Embassy – Cultural Section, 11 West Heath Road, Hampstead NW3 7UX, until the concentration camps are closed). Join me there on 29 October in half term week.

Why choose to speak on what might call ‘marginal issues?’ Because we may ask ourselves a selection of the following questions:

    How are we indifferent?

    When have we acted this year?

    With a media that overloads us with information and knowledge, we cannot acknowledge and act
    on every need. So how do we legitimately filter?

    What affect do we have?
    How can one person make a difference?
    Are we ever allowed to be selfish?

Many questions, yet our tradition from Torah (Exodus 23:9): You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt; to Hillel: Uvimkom she’ayn anashim, histadayl lihyot ish – Where none act like a human being, act like a human being; to Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference;” urges us to acknowledge and act in the world for good. Indifference allows the space for hatred and evil to flourish.

If you were challenged to think, may be even to act on such issues, surely you will act with renewed vigour on matters somewhat closer to home.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Lea challenged us to think of our why and last night Cantor Tamara offered a process theology, suggesting that we are not alone, journeying and evolving, God is on the ride with us. Wiesel wrote on receiving a Nobel Prize in 1986, “One person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death… Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

Judaism is not about personal redemption, rather universal salvation. One mitzvah at a time we progress the covenant between God and Israel and as Liberal Jews add, to humankind. Our lives, all lives matter. Love of God involves a duty to love, not indifference. Love of being Jewish, draws us through life one mitzvah at a time. Love of humanity means to open ourselves to the plight of those in need and for their sakes and ours to fight.

Eternal One, when we would despair at the plight of humanity and the planet we live upon, give us insight. When we question our worth and ability to affect the life of another, give us might. When we lose sight of You, let the source of our ancestral heritage draw us one mitzvah at a time giving us the strength to fight.

Lo tuchal l’hitaleym

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