The Indignity of Indifference

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When we see those numbers, every one of us thinks the same thing – Emergency Hotline.  Our children know from a young age that if there is a problem, dial 9-1-1.  But when did this emergency system start?  When was it widely adopted and put into practice?


On a cold winter night, March 16, 1964, at around 2:40 in the morning, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was attacked with a knife, just a block from her apartment, and died in her stairwell.  The New York Times coverage of her murder stated that police records showed 38 people admitted to hearing her cries for help, but not a single witness called to report the incident.   Dozens of books have been written about her death and the lack of empathy and action taken by those around her.  (Fifty years later, a new documentary called “The Witness”, dove into the entire tragic story and reveals that the Times grossly exaggerated that number.


There weren’t 38 eyewitnesses to the murder, which began with an attack outside and then continued in the apartment lobby. Only a handful of people probably saw Winston Moseley, who died in prison a few years ago, attack Kitty.  At least two neighbors claim to have called the police, although police logs have no record of those calls.  One neighbor, Sophia Farrar, did in fact run to help Kitty and hold her as she died.


Whatever the exact number, the bottom line is that people did hear her being attacked and did nothing.  Her tragic death led to several positive things, most notably, the adoption of the 9-1-1 emergency call system.  It also led to social scientists studying indifference and what leads to people being passive and apathetic to that which is happening around them. 


The dangers of indifference didn’t start with the Kitty Genovese story; it goes as far back as the Torah.  A prince of Israel and a princess of Midian acted shamelessly in public together in a terrible affront to the Almighty.  The gross indiscretion was the act of two individuals.  True, there were others who participated in the licentiousness and responded to the seduction of the Midianite women, but it wasn’t everyone.  And yet, when Hashem acknowledges Pinchas, it is for turning back His wrath against all of Bnei Yisroel and saving them from collective suffering as if they are all guilty.  What did they all do wrong, wasn’t it only the actions of a few?


And what is the reward for Pinchas?  The Noble Peace Prize.  Rewarding Pinchas for his intervention and act of heroism is understandable, but is the peace prize really the best reward for someone who brutally drove a spear through two people and violently ended their lives?  Is bris shalom really the most befitting award?


The most difficult thing to understand in the story is the reason given for Pinchas’s reward altogether.  He is not acknowledged for the Kiddush Hashem he made publicly, but rather because “heishiv es chamasi”, because he turned back Hashem’s anger at the Jewish people.  Didn’t Pinchas deserve a reward for his behavior, even if the people continued to be punished for theirs?  Why are the two intertwined?


I would like to suggest that the villains in the Pinchas story are not in fact Kozbi and Zimri, but the villain is indifference.  Those two acted out in public and nobody challenged them on it.  The nation watched, perhaps stunned, but also silent, and nobody protested or objected.  When telling the story, the Torah emphasizes that it took place “l’einei kol Yisroel”, in front of everyone. 


The Jewish people are collectively punished, not for the act of one or even a few, but because of their own failure to act.  They watched and observed and didn’t object.  They tolerated the intolerable and created an atmosphere of indifference, in which evil could thrive.


Pinchas’s act of zealotry when focused on Kozbi and Zimri, the two recipients of his spear, looks violent and even heinous.  However, from the perspective of a crowd of passive onlookers, unable or unwilling to act, Pinchas’s stepping in was a brave act of heroism and an effort to restore peace.  He is awarded with the bris shalom, the peace prize, because sometimes the path to peace is not through indifference and looking away, it is only with brave initiative and the bold willingness to be intolerant of the intolerable. 


Pinchas is rewarded for relieving the people of their punishment and not for the Kiddush Hashem of stopping Kozbi and Zimri, because the core of the story is not the act of the two, but the inaction of the many. 


The great Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel taught:

Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction. In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. (April 12, 1999 speech at The White House as part of the Millennium Lecture Series)


Elie Wiesel witnessed and experienced the worst of what indifference allows and enables.  Baruch Hashem, we don’t have those horrific challenges.  But we too continue to suffer from indifference. 


In the digital age, we are constantly exposed to messages that teach apathy, not empathy.  For too many, social media is a vehicle to spew hatred, gossip, dishonesty and bullying.  Of course the perpetrators are the most accountable, but so are the masses who see it and don’t say anything.  They neither object nor come to the defense of those being attacked or treated unfairly.


When there is talking in shul, it is only because the talkers are confident the indifferent environment around them will tolerate the talking.  When people share gossip, it is only because they are certain the indifferent listener won’t object or stop them.  When people bully others to conform to what they want, they get away with it because most prefer indifference to getting involved. 


These three weeks are a time for collective and individual reflection on how we can dispel the sinas chinam and show greater love to one another.  Ahavas yisroel means hearing the call of those around us and anticipating the needs of those suffering in silence. It means sensitively and respectively creating an atmosphere which shuts down conversations of gossip and stepping in when people are being bullied online or offline. 


The women of Midian were seductive, but as Elie Wiesel said, even more seductive is indifference.  We must never give in to her temptation.  Only by being intolerant of the intolerable are we worthy of the bris shalom, the gift of true and authentic peace.