Parasha — Matot Massei — Speaking Up

Shabbat Shalom. It is wonderful to return home to Congregation Beth Shalom after my vacation. Middy and I had a great time, both resting at home and traveling to the Northwest. Over a period of ten days in July we visited Seattle, Washington, Mt. Ranier, Portland, Oregon and the Oregon coast. I know I speak for Middy as well when I say that it is very special to see all of you, and, most importantly, to gather with you in worship once again.

Since I last spoke with you from this pulpit about a month ago, much has happened in the world. On July 2 we lost Elie Wiesel. Elie Wiesel came on to the world stage with the publication of Night in 1958. It was a searing account of Wiesel’s experience in the Holocaust as a teen. The publication of Night brought the experience of the Holocaust out from the shadows and into the daylight. It allowed people for the first time to talk about the extermination of European Jewry. Night gave us a vocabulary and a language in which we could communicate as the world began to come to terms with the trauma of the heretofore unspeakable horrors of what we now call “The Shoah”. Elie Wiesel went on to become one of the great moral voices of our time. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. In an announcement awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel committee said that:

“Wiesel is a messenger to mankind; his message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief. His message is based on his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps. The message is in the form of a testimony, repeated and deepened through the works of a great author.

“Wiesel’s commitment, which originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people, has been widened to embrace all repressed peoples and races. “

And yet the world keeps spinning. It does not take a day off to honor the death of a great man. I hesitate to remind us of the other events in July. There was the Orlando Massacre that claimed 49 lives in Florida. There was the unthinkable Bastille Day terror in France that killed 80 people, many of them children. Ever more shootings occurred in our American cities and towns, shootings of citizens by police, as in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota, as well as of police officers doing their jobs –like the five officers ambushed in Dallas, Texas. There was an attempted coup in Turkey and the exit of England from the European Union, the aptly named BREXIT. A Catholic priest was murdered officiating Mass in France by men acting in the name of ISIS. All of these events taking place in the context of our American political climate and the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and their aftermath. To many it may feels a bit like 1968, another election year where events threatened to spin out of control. It is a period when many of us are pondering serious questions about how we treat each other, about what constitutes respect, about how we honor one another’s humanity, about peace in our communities; the very questions that Elie Wiesel addressed throughout his life.

With so much going on, we have a tendency to withdraw, to throw up our hands, to conclude that there is nothing that we can do, to wonder why bother? Our Torah portion for this addresses those feelings. The Torah portion in question deals with the ability of a woman to take and to keep a vow. A vow is a self imposed obligation. It is a binding promise to oneself or to another party to act in a certain way. The Torah states that if a married woman makes a vow, her husband can annul the vow if he does so on the day he finds out about it. Similarly, if a single woman makes a vow her father may annul the vow if he does so on the day he finds out about it. However, if the husband or father find out about the vow and do nothing on the day they find out about it, the vow will stand.

Of course I am keenly aware and I understand that most of us cringe at the Biblical notion of the husband or father having the authority to keep an adult woman from fulfilling a vow she has voluntarily taken. Clearly this doesn’t conform to our present day values and sensibilities. But this aside, the Talmud derives an important moral principle from this law. The Talmud states that “silence constitutes assent”. If the husband or father finds out about a vow, but does nothing about it, it is considered as if he is acquiescing to the promise and to the commitment that his wife or daughter has made. From then on, he has lost his right to invalidate the vow. If he says nothing when he hears of it, it is as if he is agreeing with it, and it must stand, even if he changes his mind later on.

The important insight of the Talmud is that “silence constitutes assent”. This is of course true outside of the domestic realm as well. For example, historical research has shown that only a hard-core minority of the people who voted for Hitler in 1933 were anti-Semitic. Most of the people who voted for Hitler did so despite his anti-Semitic ideology, not because of it. They simply decided to sacrifice the protection of a vulnerable minority for what they perceived as their own self interest. They were not actively hostile to Jews; the welfare of Jews simply did not matter to them. Their silence, their indifference to the fate of their fellow citizens, constituted assent for what Hitler planned to do to their neighbors.

Elie Wiesel put it this way:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

So, let us choose love of our fellow human being over indifference to their fate; let us choose beauty over indifference to our environment; let us choose faith over our indifference to universal human values. We cannot evade responsibility by sitting on the sidelines, refusing to get involved. We must not take refuge in silence. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Let us say, Amen.
Shabbat Shalom