Thursday, July 28, 2011

MASEI 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


MASEI 5771


World War II was finally over but there was much to be done. Aside from the smoldering ruins of decimated European Jewry, there were many survivors and refugees who needed help.

The Va’ad Hatzolah2 in America was informed that there were twenty four young men in Italy who were in a desperate situation. They had originally been in contact with an influential man, who had agreed to expedite the process of procuring the necessary documents for them to leave Europe. But the man had fallen under suspicion and could no longer help them. The students were now in imminent danger of being deported back to Poland, which was a dangerous place for Jews even post-war.

The Va’ad convened an emergency meeting and came to the conclusion that the only viable avenue of help could come from the Mafia. Contacts were made and a meeting was arranged between Rabbis Aharon Kotler, Avrohom Yoffen, Avrohom Kalmanovitz zt’l, and the Va’ad’s director Rabbi Shlomo Shapiro with Mafia head, Joe Bonnano.

The Va’ad decided that Rabbi Aharon would speak first in Yiddish and then Rabbi Shapiro would translate. They brought along twenty thousand dollars in case the Mafia needed added incentive.

When they arrived in Bonnao’s office he was dressed in a suit and robe and smoking a cigar. “What do you want?” he snapped.

Rabbi Kotler began speaking in Yiddish about the ordeal of the students in Italy. When Rabbi Shapiro began to translate, Bonnano silenced him. “I like the way the Rabbi talks. Let me hear him.”

It was only when Rabbi Kotler completed explaining the entire situation that Bonnano allowed Rabbi Shapiro to translate and explain the urgency of the situation.

Bonnano stared at them for a moment. Then he asked, “Do you want the boys to come by boat or by plane?” Rabbi Kotler turned to Rabbi Shapiro, “Vus zugt ehr – (what did he say)?” When Rabbi Shapiro relayed the question, Rabbi Kotler replied that they had to be rescued in any way as soon as possible, so they won’t be sent back to Europe.

Bonnano nonchalantly replied, “No problem. Today is Wednesday; we’ll have them here by Friday!”

Rabbi Kotler told Rabbi Shapiro to ask him how much it would cost. Bonnano thought for a moment. “Tell the Sage he should give me a blessing instead3.”

In his inimitable genius Rabbi Kotler immediately replied, “Du zolst shtarbin in bet – You should die in bed.” Bonanno was very excited by the blessing. The meeting was adjourned and two days later the twenty four students were safely transported to America. The students later described how they were suddenly rounded up in the middle of the night and taken to the airport.

As for Bonnano, he was in jail once, and shot at on three occasions. Yet he lived into his eighties and died of a heart attack, in his own bed.

Rabbi Kotler’s daughter, Rebbitzin Sarah Schwartzman a’h, related that when her father was criticized for working with a noted secular Jewish leader during the war years he replied, “Ich volt mishtateiach geven far’n Poips, tzu rativin di nuggel fun a Yiddishe kint – I would prostrate myself before the Pope himself to save the fingernail of a Jewish child.”

The Torah teaches that if someone kills another person accidentally, the relatives of the deceased have the right to avenge the murder4. The murderer would only be protected if he fled and remained in one of the six designated Cities of Refuge or any of the 48 Levite cities.

The Torah then warns that we have a responsibility to maintain its laws and decrees of justice. “ולא תחניפו את הארץ - You shall not bring guilt upon the land in which you are, for the blood will bring guilt upon the Land…5

The Sifrei quotes an exegetical understanding of the verse: “You shall not flatter (חניפה) a wrongdoer.” Shaarei Teshuva6 discusses the severity of the sin of flattering a sinner. The most egregious form of sinful flattery is when one tells an evildoer that his deeds do not constitute sinful behavior. If one minimizes the severity of his sin, or worse negates the sin completely, he is in effect encouraging the transgressor to repeat his sin.

A righteous person has an obligation to despise the actions of miscreants and sinners and to promulgate the folly of their views and actions. A leader must feel responsible to stand up and defend the honor of the Torah. The gemara7 states, “Whoever is able to protest against wrongdoings… and fails to do so, is held accountable for his behavior.”

In today’s’ day and age there is much worthy attention devoted to the vexing issue of bullying in schools. There are students who are afraid to walk down the halls of their school or go out to recess because they are subject to physical/verbal bullying on a regular basis.

Experts explain that the chief motivation behind a bully’s aggression is his need for attention. His macho persona and the image of bravado that he tries to foster is usually his unconscious attempt to mask his inner feelings of extreme vulnerability and lack of self-esteem. He attempts to prove to himself that he is not subjected to his inner feelings of inferiority by preying on those who are socially/physically weaker and inferior to himself. That is why 99% of bullying is done in public. The bully seeks a platform so he can garner the attention he seeks to assuage his own bruised self-image.

If that is true, the real focus of our efforts to stop bullying is by targeting the spectators who view the bullying in shameless silence. Quite often the spectators are afraid to defend the victim out of fear that doing so will make them the next target. But even if they are afraid to speak up they can help the victim by walking away and refusing to be part of the viewing audience8.

There is a school with a very unique anti-bullying policy. The rule in that school is that if there is a fight, anyone caught watching the fight is subject to very strict disciplinary measures, sometimes even more so than the fighting parties. It’s an amazing thing to see: As soon as a fight breaks out in the school everyone in the vicinity runs away.

In the world of sports it is common that a team will have a better winning record when they play on their home field/court than they do on the road. When one is playing in front of multitudes of cheering fans it is enthusing and motivating, prompting the athlete to play that much harder. Conversely, playing in front of crowds of people who hope and cheer for the player’s failure and abysmal performance is at least somewhat psychologically debilitating. We play and work harder when we know we are being watched.

In regards to a bully or one who acts inappropriately or sinfully, those who do not protest his wrongful deeds, or at least seek to take away his platform, are compliant in his actions, whether they intend to be or not. It is an unwitting violation of the prohibition to have any connection with flattery.

It is not easy to stand up for what’s right. But when one witnesses or hears someone saying something that is contrary to the Torah’s outlook, or when one hears another shaming a Torah scholar or promulgating false ideas in the name of the Torah, he has an obligation to speak up for the honor of the Torah – sometimes indignantly and emphatically. Remaining silent at such a time is a violation of the Sifrei’s understanding of the verse which forbids one from flattering a wrongdoer.

This summer Rabbi Aryeh Rodin, a veteran and beloved Rabbi in Dallas, Texas, joined the talented staff of learning rabbeim at Camp Dora Golding. At one point, I was walking together with him and I asked him what quick philosophical advice he would give to a younger Rabbi. He replied, “I’ll tell you the same thing that my Rebbe, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz zt’l, told me when I began my rabbinic career over two decades ago: לא תגורו מפני איש' – Do not tremble before any man’9. Stand up for what you feel is the truth and don’t allow yourself to be intimidated by anyone.”

“You shall not flatter a wrongdoer”

“Do not fear any man”

1 With gratitude to Rabbi Avrohom Jablon who inspired this thought
2 “Committee of Salvation”
3 What blessing should one give a Mafioso?
4 Rabbi Akiva’s opinion (Mishna, second perek Makkos) is that it is a mitzvah for the relative to pursue and kill the murderer if he is outside the City of Refuge.
5 35:33
6 3:187-199
7 Shabbos 44b
8 Of course if there is physical aggression involved it is the responsibility of everyone to try to help for the victim immediately.
9 Devorim 1:17


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