Bystanding Or By Standing
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The Bystander Effect is an interesting psychological phenomenon and theory that refers to situations where, when someone is in danger or an emergency situation is unfolding, those present or "standing around," do not offer any aid or assistance. Rather, through a diffusion of responsibility, each individual can conveniently hide behind the "it's-someone-else's-responsibility-and-not-mine" lament or play the "I'm-hiding-behind-the-newspaper-and-don't-see-what's-going-on" game. Findings suggest that the larger the crowd or group of bystanders, the more likely any given individual is to feel that he or she need not be responsible for, and, therefore, remain uninvolved in and with, what's happening.
As we start a new sefer in our weekly kriat haTorah and a new chapter in the development of Am Yisroel, we learn a stark and poignant lesson in Bystander Effect from the greatest of all leaders and teachers, Moshe Rabbeinu. In the short span of just twenty-two pesukim, we encounter Moshe four times, in four very different events. When first reeled in from his floating ferry, we are presented with an engrossing descriptor of Moshe (Shemot 2:6): "Vatiphtach vatirehu et hayeled, v'hinei na'ar bocheh..." He has the physical appearance of a baby and child, but possesses the cry of a teenager and young man. The difference, in psychological terms, is very noteworthy. A baby, born with primary narcissism, cries only for its own needs, desires, wants and pleasures. A teenager, having developed an awareness that there are other people in this world, people with their own issues, challenges, troubles and adversity, cries for someone else's pain. Even at this tender chronological age, the maturity of the future leader of our people manifested a sensitivity, responsiveness and consciousness well beyond his years.
We next encounter Moshe, at a later stage of life, when he goes out and witnesses an Egyptian beating a Jew (Shemot 2:11): "Vayifen ko v'ko, vayar ki ein ish..." "He looks this way and that way and he sees that there is no one there"...or is there? Both the Netziv in his HaEmek Davar and Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mechlenberg in his HaKetav VeHakabalah imply and suggest that there WERE other people present, but that no one was taking action, getting involved or standing up as a person should. They were bystanding. Says the Netziv, based on the Mishneh in Avot, "B'makom she'ein sham ish, hishtadel hu l'hiyot ish." Says the HaKetav VeHakabala, "Chashav Moshe she'achad m'echav ha'omdim sevivo... yatzil et echav," that, surely, one of the Jews standing around would come to the assistance of his brother in trouble. But, alas, no one does, so Moshe himself steps forward and takes matters into his own hands.
Another day, soon thereafter, Moshe comes across two Jews fighting with each other and immediately intervenes. (Shemot 2:13) He then flees Egypt and rescues the daughters of Yitro from the harassment by the local shepherds. (Shemot 2:16-17) These actions culminate in Hakadosh Baruch Hu asking Moshe to lead the Jewish people.
There is much to be learned from the proactive and activistic actions of Moshe. His standing up, as a person should, becoming intricately involved and deeply caring about what happened to his fellow Jews should serve as a clear role model for all of us. This is the mettle of a true leader; determined and decided, courageous and confident, possessed of vigor, valor and virtue. Moshe, via his moral fiber and ethical idealism, was not afraid to harness that human trait called empathy; that power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person's feelings, essence of being and experience. To be sensitive when someone else is hurt, and hurting, and not to walk away but to do something constructive about it is the highest level of love.
Elie Wiesel, in making two powerful points relevant to Moshe's story, said, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference" and "Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." How true are Dr. Wiesel's words!
Moshe was a symbol of bravery, not because he was necessarily physically strong but because he had strong faith and because the he had the capacity to care-and to cry-and to love.
What a beautiful message Moshe brought and taught to create our Am Yisroel and bring us together. What a relevant message it remains for us even today, so that we can stay united as a nation, caring, loving and, yes, crying with and for each other in that extended family known as The Jewish People.
We have the choice. We can either be counted among the bystanders of life or be counted by standing in life. It is up to us.