We Must Make It Our Business

Sara Gurney (of blessed memory) stood no more than 5’2” but her personality could fill a room. Sara was machatunim, we were related by marriage. While I have had many teachers in my life, some who have been and are giants in the Jewish world, this diminutive woman taught me a lesson that I will never forget.

Many years ago when I was still in rabbinical school, Mandy and I attended High Holy Day services at a Manhattan synagogue and that year we sat with Sara. The room was hot, the congregants were hungry and the rabbi droned on and on. Forty-five minutes later the sermon ended and Sara immediately turned to me and said, “don’t be that type of rabbi – and remember no politics on yontiff!”

Sara, on this Erev Yom Kippur I want to ask for your forgiveness. While, I promise not to ramble on and on for forty-five minutes, unfortunately I have to talk politics.

Over the past week, I like many of you, read papers, blogs and email notifications, watched CNN, CNBC and Fox News and tuned into our President’s address as we all waited with baited breath to hear what was happening and what would happen in Syria.

I personally participated in several teleconference briefings sponsored by the Religious Action Center, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the White House. I heard from the President, political pundits and spiritual leaders, all with strong opinions on what we should and should not do in response to the abhorrent behavior of the Assad regime.

All of this information pouring into our heads, all of this troubling news coming during the Yamim Noraim, the 10 days of deep self-reflection that occur between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And all of this occurring so rapidly and so close to Kol Nidre that most rabbis, like me, were caught struggling between absorbing the information and writing it down so we could deliver our sermons to you.

As I struggle to make sense of how Bashar al-Assad could launch a chemical attack on his own people, murdering more than 1,400 human beings, including 400 children in Syria, I also struggle with the question that keeps arising which is “what does this have to do with me?” What does this have to do with us?

There are many people who are arguing that this is a problem for some other people in some other country. Even the President referred to those who speak out against American intervention by sharing with us the following in his recent address, and I quote:

Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated, and where, as one person wrote to me, “those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?”

And the President went on to say:

Many of you have asked: Why not leave this to other countries, or seek solutions short of force? As several people wrote to me, “We should not be the world’s policemen.”1

At face value the argument that we should mind our own business, that we should focus on our own problems, seems to resonate with many people. Many of us argue that we have domestic problems with our own economy, employment, housing and hunger and we must address these serious issues. In this context the advice to mind your own business seems straightforward and sound.

As far back as I can remember I was always taught that the ability to mind one’s business, besides being a vital, social virtue, is also an eminently desirable art. However, I also learned as I matured that like any virtuous behavior following the principle of minding your own business is not as easy as one may think.

Since one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to widen the circle of our active concern for other human beings, the art of minding your own business becomes more complicated and more nuanced. As we mature it also becomes important to learn how to draw the delicate distinction between sympathetic, friendly interest which brings people closer together on the one hand, and unsolicited prying, counseling and uninvited meddling, which puts an intolerable strain on the finest of relationships on the other hand.

So maybe rather than simply learning to mind one’s own business as part of a kindergarten curriculum as the author Robert Fulghum2 would want us to believe, I would argue that we should require a course for all adults titled “The fine art of minding one’s own business.”

Aristotle is quoted as saying; “If a man is interested in himself only, he is very small; if he is interested in his family, he is larger; if he is interested in his community, he is larger still.” In other words, that the bigger the man, the less likely he is to mind only his own business.

Our great sage, Hillel, professes the same value by asking: “Im ein ani li mi li” – “If I am only for myself what am I?”3 If we only care about our own existence and not the welfare of others, what is our worth? Asking the profound question if you only mind your own business how can you truly care for others? And Hillel immediately follows this question with one of the most profound questions in Talmud “V’im lo ach-shav ei-ma-tai?” – “If not now, when?”4

I believe that both Aristotle and Hillel were influenced by one of our best examples of a person living up to this type of behavior – our greatest prophet Moses. In the first several chapters of the book of Exodus we read one of the most well-known stories in all of Torah. In this story we are introduced to exactly the kind of man who doesn’t mind his own business, a man who interjects himself into the lives of those who need him.

Born to an enslaved people, hidden as an infant in the bulrushes to save his life from Pharaoh’s evil decree of drowning all Jewish male children in the Nile, Moses, becomes a man who concerns himself with other people’s business as it is written, “And Moses grew up and he went out onto his brethren and he saw their burdens.”

Can you imagine yourselves in the same position as Moses? There he was in the palace surrounded by banquets, royal visits, magicians, dancers, entertainment and diversions of every kind. What a glorious opportunity for any young man; this is the stuff that dreams are made of.

And what does he do? “He goes out unto his brethren, he sees their burdens,” and according to the Talmudic rendering of this story he jumps into the pits right alongside of them, and puts his own shoulder to their grinding tasks. We are taught that with that one leap, with that one jump into the lime pits, all his security in the palace vanishes, his wealth dissolves, and his privileges turn into torments. Why? Why did he give everything up?

Because Moses had one special vice that kept him from enjoying the regal splendors. He simply couldn’t mind his own business! When he saw the torture to which his brethren were being subjected, he began to understand that he was in a bigger business than he ever imagined existed.

Torah teaches, “Moses saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren.”6 Caution and prudence whispered in his ear, “Moses, look the other way, mind your own business” . . . but Moses wasn’t listening to the voice of caution. “He looked this way and that way, and seeing no one about, – “ki eyn ish”7 – meaning to say, there was no one to stand up for the Hebrew slave . . . no one was concerned about
him . . . everybody was looking the other way . . . Moses decided he was not going to look the other way, and that he was not going to mind his own business – he struck down the Egyptian.”8 He didn’t have to. He could have kept to himself but he did not.

Think for a moment what could have happened if Moses had indeed minded his own business. What if Moses was more like our other prophet, Jonah, who as we will read tomorrow chooses not to get involved? Jonah tried to run away from his obligation to get involved in another people’s business and we all know how that turned out. Certainly we learn from the Jonah story that we don’t really have a choice. We learn that there comes a time when we must stand up for what is right even when it happens in another’s land and involving another people.

I don’t believe that the German poet, Heinrich Heine,9 overstated the case when he said, “Since the days of Moses, justice speaks with a Hebrew accent.” Moses gave us the classic, spiritual profile of the ideal Jewish personality. He is not a recluse who withdraws from a shameless society to carve out his own salvation in splendid, selfish isolation.

By example, Moses demonstrated that the Jew cannot separate himself from the very community which he condemns so thoroughly. If one disagrees with the established system, one doesn’t pull out of it, but one joins into the fray, one does battle on the very ramparts of the system he wants to change, he seeks out the sources of power, in the same manner Moses sought out Pharaoh. He aims for conditioning the people as Moses did with the Hebrews. It is from moments such as that, that freedom is forged.

In the beginning God and Moses wanted to teach the Hebrews, the Egyptians and mankind the lesson that you work through the system, if you want to change. Our story gives us countless exchanges that Moses had with Pharaoh as an example of attempting a diplomatic solution. Unfortunately, very much like our struggles today, the tyrannical leadership of Pharaoh that oppresses the Israelites rejected most diplomatic solutions.

Finally in order to force Pharaoh to see the light, God had to resort to drastic measures and bring the plagues down upon the people. God showed him that these plagues are the natural outgrowth of a system that disregards the dignity of man.

I truly believe that this story is teaching us that threat of the plagues was simply not enough – it was the follow through that changed the course of history.

This is where I actually agree with the President because like him I have a deeply held preference for peaceful solutions. However, like the President, I too am frustrated by the fact that over the last two years while his administration has tried diplomacy and sanctions, warning and negotiations, chemical weapons were still used by the Assad regime.

Thankfully, over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs, some glimmer of hope that the military option can be thwarted. However, I believe, as does the President, this has only come to fruition in part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action.

Henry Kissinger said it best:

Deterrence is greatest when military strength is coupled with the willingness to employ it. It is achieved when one side’s readiness to run risks in relation to the other is high; it is least effective when the willingness to run risks is low, however powerful the military capability.10

Because of this credible deterrent, combined with some rare constructive talks with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. Because of this credible deterrent of military force backed by international support, the Assad regime has not only admitted that it has these weapons, they have even eluded to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use.

All of this because we didn’t mind our own business!

Sadly I can only imagine what our lives, our families, our people would be like had someone; somewhere minded our business in 1939, 1940, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45? Sadly we can only imagine what our lives would be like if when the world saw the images of our gassed men, women and children someone; somewhere minded our business?

How can we do anything but make this our business?

Moses taught us that a Jew must go out to his brethren . . . if needs be he must descend into the marketplace . . . if necessary he has to go out into the streets and he has to be prepared to be battered and bruised in the process. All this, a Jew must do because he knows that the business of his fellow Jew, of his fellow human beings is his business too! It is not that he cannot mind his own business, but that he has an enlarged sense of what his business is.

Tonight, on the holiest night of the Jewish year, I once again apologize to Sara – I know I got political on yontiff – I felt I had to. But my job is not to deliver fluff from the pulpit, certainly not on Yom Kippur. My job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. My job, especially during times of uncertainty and crisis, is to make you think, to make me think, and to grapple with ideas and ideals that can actually change us, and the world, for the better.

I end by acknowledging we may get a little battered and bruised in the process but we of all people, have seen what the world looks like when others mind only their own business.
So we must make it our business to be informed. We must make it our business to be involved. We must make it our business to descend into the pits with our brethren and to stand up for those who need someone to stand up for them. We must make it our business to defend and protect the United States of America and we must make it our business to defend and protect the State of Israel! We must make it our business to strengthen the US – Israel relationship and urge all of our national and international leaders to not turn away but to make it their business because it is the right thing to do.

Misheberach Avoteinu V'Imoteinu - God of our Fathers and our Mothers - We ask Your blessing upon our nation, upon Israel and all lands. Guard us from calamity and injury. Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. Enlighten with Your wisdom and sustain with Your power those whom the people have set in authority and who are entrusted with our safety and with upholding our rights and liberties. May peace reign down on us, on Israel and in all lands.

And we say Amen v'amen!

I wish you all Gmar Chatima Tovah – an easy and meaningful fast – and may we all be inscribed in God’s Book of Life for this New Year, 5774!

1President Barak Obama – Address to the Nation on Syria – September 10, 2013
2Robert Fulghum is the author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”
3Pirke Avot 1:14
5Exodus 2:11
7Exodus 2:12
8Exodus 2:12
9Heinrich Heine (born Harry Heine, changed to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine following his conversion to Christianity from Judaism[1]) (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) was one of the most significant German poets of the 19th century. He was also a journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine's later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit and irony. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.
10Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 1957