Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Mishpatim
Mob mentality. “We just got caught up in the frenzy and lost touch!” “It was swirling around me; if I didn’t participate, I could have gotten hurt!” “They kept reinforcing the rhetoric, and, you know, propaganda is powerful – it takes over the mind.” “Why are you picking on me? There were hundreds there, not just me?” “I had no idea the group was going to be violent! I was there to listen, and then it all fell apart around me!” “Look, my job has nothing to do with what I did out there. You can’t fire me for that!”
Whatever the violence, whoever the perpetrator(s), we have heard all the excuses for why people got involved. History books teem with the interviews of people who got caught being part of the violence but who felt that there should be no consequences for their behaviors. Their participation or the failure to let them off is always someone else’s responsibility. We have heard it from people involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the White Supremacist march through Charlottesville, the riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict, the ultra-orthodox Jewish riots over COVID restrictions, the Christian pogroms against Jews … and the list of examples is lengthy. And it is not just about physical violence. Racism, Sexism, Homophobia, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia … all the phobias run rampant through history. The number of people who argue that they did something illegal because everyone around them was doing it creates an even longer list.
If we are honest with ourselves, whether it was trying to be popular in school, get along with people at work, not wanting to be left behind as people around you found some new “Loophole” in the rules or laws to exploit, falsifying government or business records, or ignoring people or problems that we know need to be addressed, we have all found ourselves on the wrong side of what we really believe to be appropriate.
It does not (in most cases) take a lot of forethought to predict that certain gatherings are the wrong places to be. Certainly, in any mob, those more intimately involved in the leadership roles that planned for or allowed the devolution of civility and safety or the spark that created the violence. Further, one’s presence (even passive presence) at an event validates the messages shared at the event. Silence is complicity, and just being present speaks volumes in people’s perceptions of who we are.
Torah obligates each of us to make sure we act intentionally about wherever we show up, for people will see our presence as our support. “Do not spread false reports. Do not be a witness to false testimony. Do not follow the majority for evil.” (Exodus 23:1-2) Showing up where the lies are spread, where the rules get broken, or where the violence destroys lives and/or property is testimony.
On the one hand, it seems odd that the first sets of mitzvot (loosely translated as rules, here) we get after the epiphany at Sinai deal with property rights and warnings against abusive and destructive behaviors. As we stood at Sinai, the entire entourage responded to God, “Na-aseh v’nishmah – We will do as we have heard.” Having just heard God’s admonitions about righteous living, I always feel that our affirmation did not convince God. God had to explain the details of what it means to make good decisions and avoid iniquity.
Perhaps more than any ritual or purification law, we should hold this command not to “follow along with the destructive masses” in the highest esteem. All hate and bigotry begin with someone’s fear of being left out, left behind, demeaned, or ignored. When we are so insecure as to our own value that we can only be strong by making others weak – the result can only be disastrous for all. If we mean, “Never Again,” we need to look no further than this week’s teaching, “Don’t follow along.” Yesterday was the UN-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day. People around the world spent time grieving the atrocities of NAZI Germany. Stand up. Seek peace. Do justice and love with empathy. Set the example, and don’t let it be set for you. Then, we can say, “Never again.” Until then, we will pray, “at least not at my door.”