How Long Until You Come to the Rescue

Yom Kippur 5776

Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim

Late night television host Jimmy Kimmel likes to play this game called “how long?” The show producers set up different scenarios outside the studio on Hollywood Boulevard and time how long it takes someone to respond or intervene. It’s meant as a kind of social experiment and a source of amusement. Since it is Yom Kippur, let me tell you about one example of this game with food: they strung up a Burrito and wanted to see how long it would take for someone to take a bite out of it. When we get to break-fast—I bet the first person to see it will take a big bite!

            Another of his experiments was to have a guy dressed up as SpongeBob SquarePants go outside his studio and fall down on the sidewalk to see HOW LONG it would take for someone to offer him help. The SpongeBob character lying on the sidewalk in his bright yellow suit kept saying in a loud voice “Help I’ve fallen, I can’t get up. Help me! I need some help!” It was impossible not to notice him! Still, people on the street kept passing him by, some looked at him, some even stopped to take a picture of him lying on the sidewalk, some jumped over him. So how long, you ask until someone stopped to help SpongeBob get up? Six minutes and 56 seconds! That’s a very long time with over one hundred people passing by him. And who do you think stopped to reach a hand out to pick up SpongeBob? A couple of young Jewish guys wearing their kippot/yarmulkes. What happened next was amazing too! SpongeBob gathered the two guys and another friend of theirs, formed a little dance circle with them and started singing Hava Nagila! The camera switched back to Jimmy Kimmel in the studio who said “it looks like a bar-mitzvah out there!”

This piece came to me on my email from Today’s Israel Connection with the headline: “This Jimmy Kimmel Video is Exploding all Over the Internet, You’ll see Why.” Can you believe a piece about helping up SpongeBob made world news!!! Even The Jerusalem Post Newspaper inquired “Why were yeshiva students singing Hava Nagila with SpongeBob SquarePants?”

The answer won’t surprise you. Because like you, those young guys are familiar with the Torah command: Lo Ta’amod al dam Re’echa! Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. That verse is part of the Holiness Code, in the Torah portion Kedoshim, considered after the Ten Commandments to be the next most significant code of Jewish Laws. We hear these words every year in our Torah reading cycle. In the Reform Movement, we’ve chosen to make that the piece of Torah we read every Yom Kippur (sometimes at this service, and always in the grown up afternoon service.)

Lo Ta’amod al dam Re’echa! Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds. This is not just a literal command about watching someone bleed out--that’s GROSS! It has implications for anytime we just stand there when someone needs our help! Whether they are physically hurt or emotionally hurting, our Torah commands us “Don’t just stand there! Do something!!!” In Judaism, the bystander has a moral duty to rescue another person—even if that person is wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants costume!

What’s so puzzling is why so many people walked by SpongeBob. How come all the people were indifferent to the pleas of another person/of even the beloved SpongeBob character?

Admittedly, we have become accustomed to sidewalk venders, and to looking away when we see homeless men and women who have claimed a certain street corner. It’s so common that it doesn’t even capture our attention. There is a phrase for this. It’s Compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is defined as the overexposure to images of suffering which, in turn, desensitize us to others’ needs and make us more cynical and less responsive and so, less likely to help.[1]

This is often coupled with thebystander effect which refers to how individuals do not offer any help to a victim when other people are present because they assume someone else will help. Ironically, studies have shown that the more bystanders there are, the less likely any individual person is to help. People think that if no one else is doing anything about it, well then maybe that situation is ok, is normal.[2] Some of the greatest tragedies of our century have occurred because people allowed for compassion fatigue and the bystander effect to control their responses.

But let me tell you about a good friend of mine Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg. At our ordination ceremony, the special ceremony where we become a Rabbi, the Head of our School blessed Arnie: kind of like how we rabbis bless you at the time of your bar/bat-mitzvah. When the blessing was complete, the Head of School invited the congregation to stand to honor one of Arnie’s guests, a righteous gentile. You see, during the Second World War, Arnie’s mother had been a hidden child. Her protector had already passed away, but this woman’s child came to represent her and to attend a ceremony elevating all that she had protected–the future of Judaism. The sanctuary resounded with cheers and tears. The Talmud teaches us that a person who saves one life, saves an entire world. Our history has taught us that the kindness of others can make all the difference in the world.

And we’re given some good instructions on what that kindness might look like. According to the famous 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, whose statue can be found in the Rotunda of the United States House of Representatives, there are specific duties required of a person who happens to find himself/herself in the presence of a person in danger of being victimized by a crime or in distress caused by some threat or catastrophe. We are taught that if a person sees another person drowning in the sea, or being attacked by bandits or by wild animals, and, although able to rescue the person either alone or by hiring others—that means by getting help--does not rescue the person; or if one hears people plotting evil against another or laying a trap for someone, and does not call it to the other's attention and let that person know; or if a person knows of another scheming to harm a friend, and, although able to make him change his mind, does not do so; or does any similar thing, that person who does not act when called upon in such circumstances, that person transgresses the commandment: you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.... [3] It is from this idea that the Jewish tradition inspired what lawyers today would call the “Good Samaritan Law” which basically means, whenever possible, you should always try to help!

Our Jewish tradition helps us to understand what is expected of us when we see someone who has fallen and needs a helping hand of any sort, whether it is a SpongeBob character, or a person down on their luck. It applies to the person who acts like he is ignorant of the bullying going on around him, or the girl who steps up to stop the other mean-girls from destroying a person’s self-esteem. And it is the same principle that guides us in bigger questions like helping people in need of life-saving assistance too.

You may remember that every year we read in our Purim Megillah what Mordechai said to Queen Esther to encourage her to go to the king to help save the Jewish people from Haman’s wicked decree. He said to her “Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for just such a time as this!” I think that means there are no coincidences! Rather, I like to think of coincidences as God’s anonymous signature. One could say those boys who helped SpongeBob just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or we could say they were Godsends! Put in that situation so they could be of help. BUT they still had to make the important choice to do the right thing!

Think about it, how many times have you found yourself in a place to make the important choice of whether to actually respond like a Godsend? Yom Kippur, wants us to constantly hear Mordechai’s challenge to Esther as the challenge within us that encourages us: “Who knows, perhaps you have come to your special position of being in exactly this place for just such a time as this!”

In contrast to those one hundred people who had the same opportunity to be a Godsend to the SpongeBob character, but just walked by his suffering, those two boys on the video can feel proud of knowing they made the right choice and did the right thing! Look, it’s not about what gets captured in a video with the SpongeBob character; it’s about what gets captured as part of YOUR character! It’s about you taking on the moral character of a mensch—a person who chooses to do the right thing, who helps when called upon in small and large ways!

            Next time you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure if you should act, do not let compassion fatigue get in your way. And when you see someone who might need help, just remembering the existence of the bystander effect may help you to overcome its paralyzing pull toward apathy and indifference. Simply being aware of the phenomenon will mean you are already more likely to think logically and to stand up and take responsibility. It can also help to ask yourself the question: How will I feel later if I don't act now? Was I put here in this place for just such a moment of action?

And the encouraging thing here is that it only takes one person to make the first move. As soon as you intervene, pick up the phone, yell for others to help, call it to the attention of an adult near by even, it won’t be but a moment until everyone else will start to follow and to assume this is the correct course of action.

Yom Kippur is the day when we think about the choices we make so we can become a better version of ourselves. So let us commit ourselves to hear the central command of our tradition: Do not stand idly by when you see something is wrong, or when you see that someone needs your help. Don’t wait to see how long it will take for someone else to do it. Instead start practicing thinking of ourselves as a Godsend! As that special person sent into a situation to become God’s partner in making a difference! Be the mensch--the one person who makes all the difference right now, and you’ll be amazed at how many people will follow YOU as a leader for good at home, at school, at work, in your Jewish community, and in our world! May it be so! Amen.

 


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compassion_fatigue

[2] Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

[3] (Maimonides, Torts, "Murder and Preservation of Life" 1:14, 16).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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