Ignoring Cries, Silent Cries, and Prevented Cries Parshas Mishpatim

This drasha was given on February 25, 2017. It has been updated slightly. 

This morning I’d like to share with you three stories; the names and details have been changed and you will quickly see why.


Story number one involves a young boy, who we’ll call Avi. Avi was a bit of trouble-maker, he was always getting himself into conflicts with classmates and with teachers. One day he confided to an adult family friend that his father was touching him inappropriately. The family friend informed the school that Avi was attending, but the school, knowing this boy and his allure to controversy and attention-seeking behavior, they dismissed the allegations and did nothing about them. “The boy’s a liar.” “The boy’s a trouble-maker.” “It doesn’t involve us so we’re not getting involved.”


This patter continued for some time; Avi would again confide in this adult, the adult would follow up with the school, and the school would ignore it.


Finally, two years too late, the family friend called the police, who stepped in, arrested Avi’s father, and put Avi in the care of a foster family. At this point, Avi had been sexually abused for years, deeply scarred, and would need intensive therapy to teach him to trust others and to not be ashamed of himself.


Someone once asked me if the Torah speaks about child abuse. While it is not mentioned explicitly, I would suggest that it is the Mitzvah mentioned the most times in the Torah: “Do not oppress a convert, an orphan, or a widow.”


Variations of this prohibition are mentioned 46 times in the Torah! This week’s Parsha, which is all about social justice and how to build the fabric of a healthy society, begins and ends with this prohibition. This prohibition is not limited to converts, widows, or converts. It is a principal demanding of us to look out for those who are vulnerable. “G-d hears their cry,” the Torah tells us. And we are enjoined to emulate G-d and to listen ever so closely to the voice of the vulnerable and to the pleas of the powerless. There is no one more vulnerable in society than children as they are powerless and completely dependent on adults. So yes, the Torah does speak of child abuse, 46 times, and it teaches us to listen to their cries.


I hope this goes without saying, but a story like Avi’s should have never ever taken place. When a child, regardless of how big of a “trouble-maker” or “liar” they may be, shares with us an allegation, we have an obligation, a legal and moral obligation to pick up the phone and inform the police. We have an obligation to help the child and his family and care for them. Does an allegation mean something is true? Not necessarily. But if someone cries, especially a child it’s our responsibility to hear their cry and help them. And let me emphasize, helping them and supporting them is not synonymous with passing judgment on the accused. Not knowing whether or not the allegation is true does not prevent us from providing the support needed.


Is Child Protective Services perfect? Far from it. Do people get accused for things they did not do? It is extremely rare, but it could happen. But I would hate to be the one who made that decision on my own and turned out to be dead wrong. A good society, a righteous society heeds the cry of the vulnerable, and children are most vulnerable of all.


Story #2 involves a different type of cry. There are audible cries and there are silent cries and this story is about a silent cry. Sarah was a quiet, well-liked sweet young teen. At one point, in her freshman year of high school, she started to withdraw from her friends and family. Her grades began slipping and her usual put-togetherness was replaced with a complete disregard for hygiene.


Her friends were so caught up in their own lives that they stopped checking in with her, and just moved on. Tragically, but also tellingly, she didn’t have much of a relationship with her parents and although they saw many red flags, they didn’t really know what to say, and so they said nothing. Sarah fell and fell and fell.


Sarah was being abused by a sibling, emotionally, and eventually sexually. She was crying, she was sobbing, but they were silent tears that no one bothered to listen for.

As a community, as good citizens, we have an obligation to make ourselves aware of these silent cries inasmuch as we do to the audible ones. Being attuned to the silent cries means being aware of family members, or friends who have a change in behavior and start acting differently. And it may not be abuse that’s going on. But when someone suddenly starts acting very different, when someone is behaving and speaking in a way that they never did before, it may be their way of crying out to you – help me!


But it’s more – Listening to those silent tears means that you are a person who your friends and family could turn to and share with the darkest of secrets, knowing that you won’t judge them.


A colleague of mine once commented that he thought there are no issues of abuse in his shul because no one ever spoke to him about it. And then one Shabbos he decided to talk about abuse. He spoke about child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, all in a compassionate and understanding way. Following that Shabbos, people began approaching him and sharing their stories of abuse and he quickly realized that of course abuse exists everywhere. It’s a universal problem, and it exists in our community as well. If we want to save people from harm, which we all want to do, we need to transform ourselves into people who are so accepting, so loving that others can share anything with them.


And here I’m going to add something you’re not going to like. There’s an international organization called Stop It Now. It is a hotline for men with deviant attractions. It is set up for people who have not acted on their attractions but are desperately in need of help controlling them.


I don’t envy their fundraiser. That’s a hard sell. But it’s also such a crucial service. The opening section of this week’s Parsha speaks of a thief who instead of throwing into jail, the Jewish courts give him responsibilities in the hope that this will help change the criminal. Judaism believes in rehabilitation, in trying to help even the sinner, and most certainly to help someone before they’ve ever committed a crime.


Are we accepting enough that if, just maybe, a friend of ours had issues that we would justifiably be disgusted by, would they feel comfortable turning to us? Would we be their destination?


Because those people are also crying silently. They are drowning in shame, in self-loathing, and they could be helped. If someone listens to their silent cries, whether that’s by checking in when we see warning signs or by being an available and accepting person, letting our friends and family know that we are there for them always, no matter what. Helping them is also helping the victim. Those are also silent cries we cannot ignore.


We’ve spoken about ignoring cries, we’ve spoken about silent cries, but far more important than those two is preventing those cries in the first place. Our community has made many positive strides in dealing with abuse and abusers. Thank G-d, most schools would not ignore the claims of Avi and will do what they are mandated to do by law. Most schools and institutions would not ignore the signs of Sarah being a victim and would get her help. Recently, many of the Jewish schools participated in a community-wide program called Safety Kid, under the auspices of CHANA, that educates children about personal safety. If your child’s school did not participate, I urge you to speak to them and ask them what education and tools they are giving your children. (Full disclosure, my wife is their local coordinator.)


But in addition to the institutional changes, there is a basic change that needs to take place at home. Our children have to be showered with unqualified love and acceptance. Our children have to know that there is nothing they can do that would make them undeserving of our love. Our children have to know that they could turn to us and confide in us. Our children have to know that we are their rock. Because that is one of the best ways to prevent abuse.


Institutions can come up with the best practices and policies that will limit the possibility of abuse. But the best prevention starts at home. The safer a child feels, the stronger connection the child has with his or her parents, the more educated the child is as to what is acceptable and what is not, the safer your child will be.


Which leads me to the third story, a story about Michael. Michael was about as average as a 7th grader could be; he had some friends but not too many, he was a B student, nothing special.


Michael went to sleep-away camp. A counselor at camp befriended him, gave him lots of attention, and they developed a close relationship. One night, the counselor tried to make sexual advances on Michael. Michael felt very uncomfortable, and he had been taught to trust his intuition. And so he said, no. And that was it, the counselor backed off.


Then Michael called his parents who he knew loved him and who he knew accepted him and who he knew would listen to him and believe him. He told them what happened and they called the camp. The camp had protocols which they followed and put the counselor on leave and immediately called the people in to investigate.


That’s my favorite story and that’s the story line we’re all shooting for.


G-d calls us a holy people in this week’s Parsha. As a holy people, it is incumbent upon us to listen when people cry, to not act as judge or jury, to simply follow the law, and call the police. As a holy nation it’s our duty to look out for friends and family, to hear their silent cry, both actively by being attuned to our surroundings, and also passively, by being non-judgmental and accepting. And as a holy nation, it is incumbent upon us, more than anything else, to foster trust, love, and acceptance in our households so that there will be no more cries.


I Will Not Talk About Antisemitism Parshas Yisro

I will not talk about antisemitism.

I will not talk about antisemitism.

I will not talk about antisemitism.

Guess what I’m not talking about today?


Do you want me to tell you things you already know? That antisemitism exists and that it’s getting worse? Do you really need me to tell you that? I respect your intelligence and your time way too much to do that to you.

So I will not talk about antisemitism because it’s preaching to the choir.

I will not attempt to find a new angle on antisemitism that no one came up with before. Of course, everyone is trying to do so this week after watching antisemitism once again rear its ugly head. The latest new angle? The latest hot take? A well-written article in the Atlantic suggesting that antisemitism is really an anti-democracy movement. That’s what it is really all about. It’s a fascinating read, but go tell that to my great-great-great-great-grandmother who was persecuted by Cossacks, and Crusaders, and burned at the Auto-de-fe. No. The Torah was given at Sinai, our Sages teach us, from the word, Sinah, hatred. At Sinai, our national identity was born with a bastard-twin called antisemitism. It’s appealing to make antisemitism a universal enemy, but I don’t think it’s true.

So I will not talk about antisemitism because there’s nothing new to say.

This past week I went to a shul in Florida for a weekday minyan. Before entering the premises, I was asked to empty my pockets and walk through a metal detector. I walked by an imposing looking security guard, past shatter-proof windows, and security cameras. There were police cars lined up in front of the shul. I could have spent my few minutes this morning describing the sad scene. But you know what also happened? Hundreds of people started streaming in, wearing streimels, baseball hats, shorts, white-shirts, green-shirts, pink shirts, you name it. Why were they there? There was no speaker, there was no event. They were there to daven mincha! Mind you, most of these people were on vacation. But they wanted to pray, to connect to G-d, to maintain a Jewish practice that dates back at least two thousand years. And then, after davening, I went around the block, and there were at least five or six kosher restaurants, with outdoor seating, overflowing with Jews; Jews who were keeping the longest-lasting diet of all of time. That – mincha, kosher is what I saw, or at least that’s what I chose to focus on.

So I will not talk about antisemitism and how terrible it is to live in the US because it is an incomplete picture; it’s not even a good percentage of the story. The story I see is one of population growth and growing connection.

I will not talk about antisemitism because it hands a win to antisemites, and I don’t know about you, but I am very competitive…

I have davened in many airports in my life. Usually, I find the most private corner where no one can see me. But this week? I was tired of being afraid and uncomfortable. I found a seat near a wall, took out my talis and tefillin, and I davened. I shuckled. I bowed. I wore my talis over my head. You know why? Because I am proud to be a Jew; I will not allow my Judaism to be defined by fear. Which brings me to the following and final point:

This past week, I made a shiva call to Alan Jacob, Max Jacob’s nephew, as his mother, a survivor, passed away. Alan described his upbringing as completely oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust; he described an idyllic childhood. And for the first time it occurred to me, maybe survivors did not talk about the Holocaust not because of the trauma, or maybe not only because of the trauma, but because they wanted their children to have a Jewish identity defined not by hate, but by love. A Jewish identity defined not by terrible persecution, but by great promises. A Jewish identity defined not by running away from non-Jews and decrying the “evil goyim,” but by running to the nations of the world, to serve them as a “Mamlechet Kohanim/ a kingdom of priests;” acting as role models to the nations of the world! It occurred to me that in a warped way, by associating the memory of these survivors with the horrors of the Holocaust, we are doing a disservice to their legacy. Their legacy was one of positivity, of building, of hope, of rebirth.

We promised survivors Never Again, but we did not do a good enough job articulating why we’re so desperate to survive. We never finished the sentence. Never again. But why? So let me tell you why.

Never again BECAUSE – G-d charged us with an eternal mission of being a light unto the nations. Never again BECAUSE – if lived properly, a Torah-guided lifestyle could and should create armies of driven people who are self-aware, constantly self-actualizing, and acting as spiritual magnets to those around them, not by proselytizing but because we’re so darn uplifting. Never again BECAUSE – we keep Shabbos that reenforces relationships in a world of loneliness. Never again BECAUSE – of prayer that reminds us to take a deep breath, of a G-d that watches over us, and that we are not in control. Never again BECAUSE – of lashon hara that reminds us of the incredible power of speech and our social responsibilities. Never again BECAUSE – of Talmud Torah, connecting ourselves to ancient wisdom and engendering humility for exploring topics beyond our regular interests and knowledge.

So no, I will not talk about antisemitism out of respect for my grandparents and the many other survivors whose definition of Judaism was not survival for the sake of survival; it was survival for the sake of spirituality. It was survival for the sake of hope, of growth, of G-d, of Torah, of Tefillah, of joy, of community, of everything that is beautiful about our lives.

I will not talk about antisemitism.

I will not talk about antisemitism.

I will not talk about antisemitism.

And in my humble opinion, neither should you.

There is nothing new to add, it hands our enemies a win, it steals a disproportionate amount of our attention, and it is decidedly not our identity. We are not the world’s scapegoat, punching bag, or enemy. We are a kingdom of priests, a light onto the nations, and we are responsible for the spiritual and moral wellbeing of the world, and I am incredibly proud to have such a calling. I am incredibly proud to be a Jew.