Friday, September 20, 2019



          During the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside an apartment building across the street from where she lived in Queens, NY. Genovese was then chased by her assailant and attacked three times in the street, over the course of a half hour, as thirty-eight neighbors watched from their windows. Nobody called the police.
          In a book about the case, Abe Rosenthal, future editor of the New York Times, noted that the fact that no one intervened or tried to help is indicative of urban apathy. “It is almost a matter of psychological survival, if one is surrounded and pressed by millions of people, to prevent them from constantly impinging on you, and the only way to do this is to ignore them as often as possible. Indifference to one’s neighbor and his troubles is a conditioned reflex in life in New York as it is in other big cities.”
          In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell notes that Rosenthal’s conclusion was incorrect. He quotes a study in which a student staged that he was having an epileptic fit. If there was one other student in the room, he rushed to the student’s aid 85 percent of the time. However, if the subjects thought there were four other people who overheard the seizure, the only came to help 31 percent of the time.
          “When people are in a group, in other words, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem… isn’t really a problem. In the case of Kitty Genovese… the lesson is not that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her scream; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her scream. Ironically, had she been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived.”

          In parshas Re’eh and again in parshas Ki Savo, the Torah foreshadows the events that would take place after the nation entered Eretz Yisroel. Half of the tribes would ascend Har Grizim and the other half would ascend Har Eival. The Leviim would stand in the middle and would turn towards Har Grizim and declare one of the blessings, e.g. “blessed is the man who does not make a molten image”, and the entire nation would say amen. Then they would turn towards Har Eivel and declare one of the curses, e.g. “cursed is the man who makes a molten image”, and again the nation would say amen. They would continue in this manner until they finished stating all of the blessings and curses.[2]
          In Sefer Yehoshua[3], it relates the actual events when they occurred following the conquering of the cities of Yericho and Ai.
          What was the point of this seemingly theatrical display? Why was it such an important event that the Torah refers to it twice before it even occurred?
          The Be’er Yosef explains that the gemara[4] states that a person should always view himself as if he has exactly as many merits as liabilities, so that the next act he performs can tip the scales. Another opinion states that one should view the entire world as if there is a perfect balance between its merits and liabilities, and the next act he performs will actually tip the scales of the entire world.  
          The message the gemara is conveying is that one should always feel a sense of responsibility, that each of his actions are significant, and his personal conduct generally has ramifications far beyond his own self.  
          This concept was vividly portrayed by the events at Har Grizim and Har Eival. Each blessing and curse was declared from the middle, facing six of the tribes. Every individual should view himself as the Levite standing in between a mountain of curse and a mountain of evil, and his next action will determine the state of the entire world.
          When discussing the special vestments of the Kohain Gadol, the Torah relates that upon his shoulders were two Shoham stones that contained the names of all twelve tribes. “Six of their names were on the one stone, and the six remaining names were on the second stone, according to their birth.”[5]
          Chasam Sofer explains that the Kohain Gadol was a living reenactment of the event of Har Gerizim and Har Eival. He was the “Levite” in the middle with the six tribes on the “hills” to each of his sides.
          That was also symbolic for every Jew to feel that he too is like the Kohain Gadol who bears responsibility to the entire nation.

           If one does not have a feeling of responsibility, but seeks to shift blame and point fingers, he can never achieve greatness or leadership.
          This is true in every facet of life. I remember once reading about a baseball player who was asked the secret to his incredible determination to the game. He replied that every time he stepped up to bat he felt as if the whole game was riding on his shoulders and it was up to him to carry his team.
          In a similar vein, a few years ago, I took a course in CPR. The instructor told us that in an emergency situation someone has to take charge. If he opts to start doing compressions immediately, he will tire himself out. The first thing he must do is instruct someone to call for help, and then to tell someone else to grab a defibrillator. Only then, should he begin administering CPR.[6]
            How much more important is this idea regarding spiritual matters, particularly teshuva.
          Yeshaya Hanavi[7] makes reference to “the waters of Noach”.[8] The commentators question why the flood is labeled the waters of Noach when it was in his merit that humankind survived beyond it?
          The Aish Dos explains that Noach is viewed as being somewhat culpable for the flood. He did not pray for his generation out of feelings of misplaced modesty that he would be unable to effect any major changes in them. As a righteous man, he should have risen to the occasion and done his utmost, without thinking about whether he would be successful or not. If he would have felt a greater level of responsibility, he would have invested more.
          The gemara[9] relates that Eliezer ben Durdaya had a lifelong struggle with lust and immoral sin. When he finally came to the stark realization that he was lost in the morass of sin, he tried to solicit any avenue of assistance or shifting of the blame. He finally declared “The matter is contingent upon me alone!” With that he cried profusely out of sincere regret until he died. So great and sincere was his repentance that he is referred to as Rabbi Eliezer ben Durdaya.  
          As we begin the period of selichos and prepare to usher in the great days of Judgement and Mercy, the imagery of Har Gerizim and Har Eival becomes even more poignant. It’s up to us to decide which mountain we face, and whether we choose a life of blessing.

          “These shall stand to bless the nation upon Har Gerizim…”
          “The matter is contingent upon me alone!”
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah
Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor

[1] Adapted from the derasha delivered at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Setzei 5775
[2] Rabbi Leibel Chaitovksy recounted that years ago before parshas Ki Savo, he took his students for a walk to a nearby park where there were two small mounds. He stood the Kohanim and Leviim in the middle of the hills, and then sent half of the class to stand on one hill and half on the other. Then he would have the Kohanim and Leviim begin reading the pesukim exactly as they appear in the chumash. A clever way to bring the event to life.
[3] Chapter 8
[4] Kiddushin 40b
[5] Shemos 28:10
[6] Sometimes around the table when someone calls out “Can someone please pass the ketchup?” the person gets frustrated when no one does. If the request is directed at everyone, then no one in particular may feel that they should stop what they are doing to do it. The better option is to ask someone specific to pass it.  
[7] Yeshaya 54:9
[8] This is from the haftorah of parshas Ki Setzei and parshas Noach
[9] Avodah Zara 17a


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