Thursday, September 11, 2014

Judaism;s Top 40 Elul 19, #23 in the countdown - Lo Ta’amod al Dam Re’echa – Don’t Stand Idly By

According to American law, there is no legal obligation to rescue a person in danger. Jewish law, however, provides a different answer. Passivity does not become us.  Resonsibility does. Leviticus 19:16 states it clearly, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  It evokes the scene where Cain claims to have no idea where Abel is (he just killed him) and God says, “The blood of your brother is crying from the earth.”

Elie Wiesel once claimed to be able to condense the entire ethical teaching of the Bible into that one sentence, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”  Indeed, it’s been his life’s work.  And it applies equally to Jews and non Jews.  Wiesel, speaking at the Darfur Emergency Summit in July 2004, interpreted the ancient verse to highlight its contemporary global implications:

"Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa" is a Biblical commandment. "Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man."  The word is not "achi'cha," thy Jewish brother, but "re'echa," thy fellow human being, be he or she Jewish or not. All are entitled to live with dignity and hope. All are entitled to live without fear and pain.

An interesting nuance, from Rabbi Dorothy Richman: Lo ta'amod al dam re'echa literally means, "Do not stand on your neighbor's blood."  Normally, the verb "to stand" is associated with courage and activism: we value "standing up" for human rights or "standing" against oppression. Yet the language of our verse is "standing on" – being close to the action, yet ineffectual, perhaps even causing harm. Perhaps the phrase lo ta'amodbrings a subtle warning against causing well-intentioned injurywithin the imperative to respond. The potential for well-meaning, misguided interventions is present in seemingly innocent interactions.

The verse also applies in other areas. For example:  If you hear informers plotting to harm someone, you’re obligated to inform the intended victim. If you can somehow stop the perpetrator from acting, but you do not, you have broken the law, “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” –Shulkhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 426:1

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