Parasha Kedoshim

Do Not Stand by the Blood of your Fellow
This weekend marks Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day. We will be having our annual Holocaust Memorial Service this Sunday, following our Jewish United Fund brunch. Our speaker will be Jeannie Smith, the daughter of a Righteous Gentile. She will tell the story of her mother, Irene Gut Opdyke, who risked her life to hide her Jewish friends in the home of a German major, where she was forced to work as a housekeeper.  This heroic action, and those of others who put their own lives in danger to help others, were important in their own right. I learned recently that these brave individuals were responsible for saving only 5-10% of the Jews who eventually survived the war. Each life is precious, and each gesture of resistance is praiseworthy. Yet, ninety to ninety five percent of Jewish survivors in Europe were saved not because of the heroic actions of individuals, but because the governments under which the Jews lived did not cooperate with the Nazis in handing them over. The governments of France, Italy, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary all resisted, in one form or another, the Nazi demand to transport their Jewish populations “to the East”.
I learned something else recently. I learned that Germany was not a particularly anti-Semitic state for most of the modern era up until the Holocaust. Although there were anti-Semitic political parties in the late 1800s, few voters were mobilized to vote for them. Prior to World War l, no party whose main plank was anti-Semitism ever received more than 3.7% of the popular vote in German elections.  Hitler’s hate inspired National Socialist Party received 6.5% of the popular vote in 1924, but only 2.6% of the popular vote in 1928. In the 1932 elections Hitler’s party garnered 37.3% of the popular vote, but by that time they were consciously playing down their anti-Jewish views and attacking government corruption in the depths of the Great Depression.  The Nazis calculated that those who were attracted to their anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past were already voting for them, and they were unlikely to attract other voters by spewing hatred.  Therefore, they concentrated on economic matters. How did Hitler eventually seize power?  Hatred of Jews in Germany was not strong enough to get most people to support a party that advertised this as the main part of its platform. Yet, distaste for anti-Semitic rhetoric and racist demagoguery was not strong enough to block Hitler’s ascent. The fact, is, most people did not care about the fate of the Jewish minority in Germany, one way or the other. They were willing to look the other way and expose their Jewish countrymen to the fanatical hatred of the Nazi party, although they did not necessarily share that fanatical hatred. They violated one of the most important commandments in our Torah, found this week in Parasha Kedoshim – “Lo Ta-amod al dam re-ecah” – You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor.  In other words, “You shall not be indifferent”. This was the very sin of the German populace. They certainly did not love the Jews, the majority did not particularly hate the Jews – most were simply indifferent to the fate of the Jews. They were concerned about their own prospects, their own livelihoods, and were willing to expose the Jews to a group of hardcore fanatics who were brought into power for other reasons. [1]
From the violation of this commandment, Lo Ta-amod, “You shall not be indifferent”, the Nazi state proceeded to violate every other commandment in this week’s parasha. Fascism exalts the nation and its race above the universal laws of G-d, setting up the State to be worshipped as the highest good. The Nazi nation stole, they robbed, they perverted justice, they lied, they judged falsely, they spread slander, they cheated and they profaned themselves in every way.  Thus Germany was led by its leaders to the depths of immorality and godlessness. Then there were these Righteous Gentiles. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum of Israel, has recognized 24,811 “Righteous among the Nations”. They represent men and women from 47 different countries. Who are they, these people who refused to be indifferent in the face of the suffering of others? Many of them were interviewed by sociologists, and six characteristics emerged. The Righteous Gentile more likely had difficulty blending in with their own social environments – they felt different, and were somewhat alienated from the surrounding culture.  They had a willingness to act without the social approval of others – to act out of personal conviction rather than out of social convention. They had a history of doing good deeds and reaching out to the needy. They tended not to see their actions as heroic – they were matter of fact in talking about their good deeds, and saw nothing extraordinary about their actions. They saw Jews as simply “people in need” and not as a stranger or a member of a group different from their own. Finally, they acted in ways that were not planned out or carefully considered; in many instances, they acted impulsively in hiding or rescuing Jews. [2]
May the example of the Righteous Gentile be an inspiration to each of us to not stand idly by when we see people in need. May we remain alert to the dangers of callous indifference to others. May we live lives of grace and dignity and honor, and may G-d keep us far from disgrace and shame.  Let us say, Amen.  

[1] The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion and Culture, Ch. 9 “The Shoah and its Legacies” by Peter Hayes pp 236-37, edited by Baskin, Judith R. and Kenneth Seeskin Cambridge Univ Press, 2010.