The Dangers of Passivity
Three Levels of Moral Degeneration: Passivity, Destruction, Isolation
Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein
in the loving memory of Rabbi Gavriel Noach and Rivki Holtzberg and all of the Mumbai Kedoshim
And in loving memory of a young soul Alta Shula Swerdlov
daughter of Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov
To which the woman responds: "I am so envious of you; I wish had your will power."
An intriguing Midrash states (1) that three of the great Jewish personalities communicated their prophesies using an identical Hebrew term, eicha, which means "how" or "alas."
In the beginning of this week's portion, Devarim, Moses, speaking during the last weeks of his life, recalls how many years earlier he shared with his people his profound sense of frustration as the leader of Israel. "I said to you at that time, 'I cannot carry you alone...How (eicha) can I carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels if I am all by myself (2)?"
The second was Isaiah.
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, this extraordinary man of G-d laments the moral degeneration of Jerusalem and its Jewish inhabitants 700 years after Moses' death (3). "How—eicha—has the faithful city become a prostitute?" Isaiah cries. "She was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (4)."
The third was Jeremiah.
Jeremiah's heart-wrenching book of Lamentations, written 200 years after Isaiah (5) and depicting the bloody destruction of Jerusalem, opens with the word "Eicha," alas. "Alas—she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow."
Now, it is logical to assume that the Midrash is not making a random observation of three people using the same term. Rather, the Midrash is attempting to tell us that there exists a subtle link between the three messages of Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. It is this connection that compelled the three giants to choose the dramatic term "eicha" for their conversations with the people of Israel (6).
On the surface, no link is visible. Moses was discussing the enormous burden of leadership; Isaiah, the ugliness of promiscuity; and Jeremiah the tragedy of loss. Yet, the Midrash is hinting to us that these three messages are not only intertwined but actually evolve one from another (7).
What was Moses' complaint? This extraordinary human being, "Whom G-d had known face to face (8)," was not lamenting his stressful schedule or the lack of time for leisure. What perturbed Moses was that he was the only one taking ultimate responsibility for the fate of the nation. Others were willing to assist during their free time, but it was only Moses who felt that the needs and struggles of the people of Israel were his own.
"How (eicha) can I carry your contentiousness, your burdens and your quarrels if I am all by myself?" Moses cries. If only one person is ready to put himself on the line in the fight for a better world, while others just emit a sigh and go on with their personal affairs, we are bound to crumble.
The triumph of evil does not occur as a result of the perpetrators of evil per se; it happens because of the many ordinary men and women who don't care enough to stand up for what is right. When ordinary people of good moral standing lose the courage or willingness to protest injustice, morality is dead.
This is what Moses protested: the notion that ordinary men and women need not share equal responsibility in mending the world, combating immorality and transforming human society into an abode for G-d (8*).
The cry of Moses' "How can I carry you alone" ultimately evolved into the second stage of degeneration, which reached its peak during the time of Isaiah. "How has the faithful city become a prostitute?" Isaiah asked. "She was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers."
How indeed? Because Moses was left alone on the front lines of the battlefield for goodness and morality. When multitudes of people of moral stature do not feel an urgent responsibility to combat the flames of hate and evil burning in their society, a city once full of justice becomes, instead, a haven for murderers; a city of light turns into darkness.
Isaiah's call of "How has the faithful city become a prostitute," evolved into the third stage of degeneration, when Jerusalem destroyed itself, reaching the abyss during the days of Jeremiah. "Alas—she sits in solitude! The city that was great with people has become like a widow," he lamented (9).
The three "eicha's" represent three levels of moral degeneration: Passivity, destruction and isolation.
The tragedy of Oslo was twofold. Israel withdrew from most of its own territories, facilitating the creation of a massive terrorist infrastructure right at its back door. And, Israel extended incredible tolerance toward the terrorists, allowing them to continue their despicable work.
Yet this was not solely the result of erroneous decisions by some self-deceived individuals on the top of the government—the late Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yossi Sarid, Ahud Almert and Ariel Sharon. Such a perverse perspective on good and evil could have been fermented only because so many decent and nice people in Israel and abroad succumbed to the temptation of remaining silent and politically correct.
The same is true concerning every crisis—physical or spiritual—that faces our people today, from mass assimilation, to inner conflict and disharmony, to domestic abuse, teen-age despair, and the dangers of Anti-Semitism the world over. If we rely on "Moses" to do all the caring for us, our future is endangered. Every individual ought to lose a little bit of sleep because of his or her personal concern on how to bring redemption to a hurting world.
Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagen, the saintly Chafatz Chaim (1838-1933), once dispatched a delegation of Jewish representatives to the Polish prime minister in an attempt to nullify a new decree against Jewish ritual slaughtering (shechitah).
Upon their return, they reported to the great rabbi that their mission was a failure. "The minister did not understand our Yiddish, and the translator did not do a good job conveying our message," the delegation reported.
"Yes, yes," cried the Chafatz Chaim. "But why did none of you faint? Had one of you been genuinely affected by the decree against Judaism as to faint, the prime minister would have understood you very well," he concluded.
2) Deuteronomy 1:9; 1:12.
3) Moses spoke his words in the year 2488 since Creation. Isaiah began to prophesies in the year 3142 since Creation.
4) Isaiah 1:21. -- These words of Isaiah are also read on this Shabbos, in the Haftorah.
5) According to most opinions, Jeremiah wrote Lamentations in the year 3320, while imprisoned by the Jewish king Yehoyakim. He then distributed it through his disciple, Baruch ben Neriyah. When the king Yehoyakim read it, he tore it up and burned it, demonstrating his lack of faith in Jeremiah's despairing prophesies.
6) This is further underscored by the custom in some Jewish communities to read on this Shabbos the verse of Moses' stating "eicha," in the same sad melody in which we read Jeremiah's book of Eicha (Lamentations) on the 9th of Av, when we commemorate the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the
Temple on that day.
7) The Midrash itself comments that Moses observed the condition of the Jewish people during a time of serenity and comfort, when they could afford to complain and quarrel. Isaiah saw the people during a time of frivolity and promiscuity. Jeremiah witnessed the Jewish people during their time of tragedy and loss. It seems quite clear that the Midrash is denoting an evolutionary process of degeneration.
8) Deuteronomy 34:10.
8*) Aicha is comprised of the same letters as the word Ayekah. The Aicha becomes a call for Ayekah!
9) This interpretation in the Midrash is based on a lecture presented by Rabbi Adin Even-Yisroel (Steinzaltz) in Jerusalem, during the summer of 1999.
10) This story was told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a public gathering in the winter of 1975.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.