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Please Don't Pass Me By

20/02/20 12:50:11

Feb20

As I read the parasha, the Torah portion of this week (Mishpatim), a line leapt out at me. It caught my breath, tapped my heart and dug into my memories. I’m referring to a line in the verse: If you see your enemy’s ass weighed down under its burdens, you shall not pass by. You shall surely release it with him” (Exodus 23:5).

 

The line that got to me is: “You shall not pass by”. This is not the standard translation (it can be read as: “you shall not refrain from helping”), but this translation is what spoke to me.

 

The verse is about important principles: the need to relieve the pain and suffering of animals, (tza’ar baalei chaim) the recognition that your enemy is also human; the persistence of hatred. It’s, however, the articulation of the emotion and power underlying these principles that really speaks to me and that is so elegantly encapsulated in the timeless “Don’t pass by”.

 

Our most human responses, our first instinct, is to pass by, to avoid the unpleasant and the painful. The world is awash in problems and negativity, so why not avoid a potentially difficult encounter with someone I consider my enemy? There is a fundamental axiom of Jewish ethics and morality in the reply to this question: Don’t give into your basest instincts of insularity and animosity or in the Talmudic words: “supress your yetzer hara, your evil inclination”.

 

This sentiment is teased out in another foundational verse of the parasha: “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in Egypt”. Here too we are called on to avoid our darkest impulses of xenophobia, fear and animosity towards the stranger.

 

So many crimes across so many cultures have been committed against the stranger. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, recognising the humanity of the stranger has been the historic weak point in most cultures: The Greeks called strangers barbarians because of their speech which sounded like the bleating of sheep, (the origins of Baa Baa Black Sheep?). The Nazis called us rats and vermin as Pharoah did (implicitly) some few thousand years ago. The Hutus of Rwanda called the Tutsis cockroaches. The current paranoid verbal attacks and avoidance of the Chinese community in Australia (and across the USA and Europe) because of the Coronavirus, is yet another example of our fear of the other.

 

The same rationale for using the example of the distressed donkey to heal wounds and overcome antagonism is spelt out in another verse of the parasha: “You must not oppress strangers. You know what it feels like to be a stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ibid 23:9). In other words, we are as human as we treat the stranger. We know his or her heart because we were once in the same narrow place. Egypt is known as Mitzrayim in Hebrew because it was a narrow strait jacket for strangers. Meitzarim are constricted, insular spaces. My soul sears for the countless refugees across our planet, the latest tragedy unfolding in Idlib, Syria where close to a million people, half of them children, are being horribly attacked and displaced. My heart breaks for the refugees in Australia (not to mention the few still languishing in detention on Manus and Nauru) deprived of many basic rights or struggling to make a living. At least I can respond to those suffering here with tzedakah and acts of charity.

 

The words of the verse caught my attention and spoke to me personally because they recalled a song I heard as a teenager, that helped shape my social conscience and that still resonates for me today. I’m referring to the lesser-known song of Leonard Cohen called: Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace). These are some of the lyrics:

I was walking in New York City and I brushed up against the man in front of me
I felt a cardboard placard on his back
And when we passed a streetlight, I could read it, it said:
"Please don't pass me by - I am blind, but you can see -
I've been blinded totally - Please don't pass me by."
I was walking along 7th Avenue, when I came to 14th Street
I saw on the corner curious mutilations of the human form
It was a school for handicapped people
And there were cripples, and people in wheelchairs and crutches
And it was snowing, and I got this sense that the whole city was singing this:

Oh please, don't pass me by
Oh please, don't pass me by
For I am blind, but you, you can see
Yes, I've been blinded totally
Oh please, don't pass me by

And you know as I was walking I thought it was them who were singing it
I thought it was they who were singing it
I thought it was the other who was singing it
I thought it was someone else
But as I moved along I knew it was me, and that I was singing it to myself

 

The song was part of a live concert and Cohen is at his impassioned best crying out ‘Well I sing this for the Jews and the Gypsies and the smoke they made’. He directly challenges his audience ‘sitting deep in your velvet seats’ thinking ‘I’ll never have to sing that song’. No, he answers, confronting then – and us – with the reality that we face moments of utter despair and estrangement when “You’re gonna get down on your knees”. He implores his listeners: “Don’t be the person that you came with”.

Surely a direct echo of the verse – don’t hate the stranger, because the stranger is you! Don’t pass by the opportunity to help another, to give whatever you can, to do whatever is possible within your power…

 

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Sat, 28 November 2020 12 Kislev 5781