This week’s Torah portion is brimming with ethical commandments, the most familiar of which is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) When the Torah scroll is unrolled to the middle this verse stands at its center. Many have therefore interpreted this phrase to stand at the core of Jewish ethics.
I have always found this verse perplexing. Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love? A prior verse offers needed wisdom and clarification. Rendered literally it reads: “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:16) Most translators interpret the verse as follows: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Jewish tradition has understood this phrase to mean that each of us has an obligation to help others. When someone is in distress we must try to help. If a person is drowning we must try to rescue him or her, whether the person is young or old, man or woman, Jew or gentile, stranger or friend. Failing to even try to save another human being in distress is likened to shedding blood.
How often have we driven around an accident when we are rushed saying to ourselves, “I am sure the police were already called.” Even though 911 is an easy phone call how many times do we assume someone else has made the call? Yet we have a Jewish obligation to help others. We need not jump in the water if we can’t swim, but we must help. In our age it as simple as making a phone call. Fulfilling this command is but two buttons on our cell phones.
Failure to help others transgresses Judaism’s most precious obligation to the world. We are responsible for others. I may have trouble understanding how I can love all people. I have little difficulty understanding the idea that when I see another human being in trouble I am obligated to try to help. This is what it means to be a Jew. This is what it means to be a human being.
This is part of what we remember as we mark the Holocaust this week. Countless people, and far too many countries, turned their backs on the Jewish people. At the Evian Conference when 32 nations, including the United States, met prior to Kristallnacht, in order to decide what to with Jewish refugees who wished to flee Nazi Germany, only the tiny country of the Dominican Republic offered to accept Jewish immigrants. Later the passenger ship, St Louis, filled with German Jews, was turned away from our own country’s shores.
Because so many turned a blind eye, the Nazis were empowered to murder six million Jews. It was not just the Nazi regime’s murderous actions that led to the Holocaust. It was as well the world’s silence. It was this deafening silence of the masses of humanity that allowed the evil few to perpetrate their crimes. Can there be greater evidence of the meaning of the Torah’s command? Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!
I may never be able to understand how to love all human beings, but I can say that all human beings are my neighbors. As we commemorate the Holocaust we must learn to say that all human beings are my neighbors.