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Parashat Hashavua Ki Teitzei 2013 / 5773 - Don't Hide: Altruism, Selfishness, and Human Nature

11.08.2013 by

Parshat Ki Teitze contains more mitzvot than any other parsha in the Torah - 27 positive ones (things you must do) and 47 negative ones (things forbidden to do), for a grand total of 74. Some of them relate to the fighting that will take place soon, when the Israelites enter and conquer the land of Israel, as well as other aspects of life in Israel, but most are applicable anywhere and at any time. One of those mitzvot - actually it's two, as we'll see in a moment -  concerns the responsibility we have for other people's property. The Torah discusses  two scenarios, one in which we see a lost ox, sheep, donkey (any animal, really) or article of clothing (any lost object, really)  of our brother (fellow citizen), and the second in which we see our brother's animal struggling and falling under a haevy load. In both cases we are meant to help: in the first case, collect the lost item, keep it safe, look for the owner, and return it to him, and, in the second, assist in righting the struggling animal.

These halachot present us with a fascinating social contract, according to which we are all responsible for the property and posessions of our neighbors. We are meant to be good Samaritans (the phrase comes from a somewhat anti-Jewish Christian story, I know, but that is the expression), in a way that goes beyond the contemporary model, which typically only covers physical danger. According to these mitzvot, we must take an active role in helping others not suffer financial loss. Translating this from a world of sheep and oxen to our world of cars, smartphones, the stock market, and Walmart, is an intersting problem, and may well call for a social compact few of us can even imagine - perhaps warning our friends and neighbors against shopping where it is expensive, or telling them where the merchandise is shoddy, and pulling over whenever we see a stalled car, or perhaps a cell phone with a dead battery.  The level of responsibility certainly goes way beyond the norm in the cities in which most of us live, where minding one's own business is usually seen as the way to successfully navigate the urban landscape.

Interestingly, the Torah seems to be familiar with exactly how New Yorkers would prefer to deal with these problems - not make eye contact - and expresses the obligation to help in direct response to that.  Both in the case of the lost items and the struggling animal, the Torah doesn't simply say you must help out a person in these circumstances. Rather, it tells you that you may not see these problems and  והתעלמת - hide yourself from them, ignore them. The Torah knows the typical urban strategy when we are faced with someome else's problem: don't make eye contact, don't get involved, look the other way, cross the street, walk away from it, hide.  The Torah could have just said "collect lost items and return them to their owner", or "help a struggling pack animal in the road", but it knows that we already know what the right thing to do is (more on that in the next paragraph), but, at the same time,  we also have a strategy to get us out of doing it. By making the language of the mitzva "do not hide, do not ignore", rather than just "help out", the Torah is telling us that it knows what will happen if it just tells us to help someone calling for help: we will claim we didn't hear it, didn't see, we don't know anything about it. The Torah knows that it needs to address this defense mechanism, as it is so common.

We learn another interesting thing here as well. By focusing on the dynamic of seeing and ignoring, of pretending not to see, the Torah is giving us a profound insight into morality and human nature. It would seem that the Torah knows that we feel intuitively, naturally, that when we see someone with a problem,  we should help.The Torah doesn't need to tell us that. Rather, it focuses on the "I didn't see it" gambit, because it also knows that, while we do want to help those in trouble, we also have a tendency to fight that natural altruistic urge, to fail to live up to it, to back away from it, and the way we do that is to deny we saw the whole thing. We don't argue against doing the right thing - happily, that positive behavior is too deeply ingrained in us. Rather, we hide our faces, pretend we did not see - because we all know that if you did see,  you should help! This is a beautiful truth about human nature. We only get out of helping by pretending to not have been there, because we all know that if we were there, and saw it, we should have helped.  Altruism is so basic to us that the only way out of it is to deny that we knew the need was there. As Rashi says, the Torah, by legislating against והתעלמת - pretending we didn't see - is telling us we can not  look away from the scene as if we don't see it. The implication is that, once we admit we see it, we know we must help. We know that we have no argument against helping, no case against it, all we can do is pretend we weren't there, and it is precisely that gambit which the Torah legislates against.

So, it turns out that the Torah, by demanding we not ignore our unlucky neighbor,  is actually just telling us to do what we already know is the right thing to do, what our innate altruism is telling us to do, but which our just-as-innate selfishness, or fear, or shyness, is struggling with. As we are, thank God, not about to argue against our altruistic natues, by somehow claiming that we don't have to help someone in need of assistance, our only way out of this conflict would typically be to lie, and say we never saw the problem. The Torah therefore simply tells us to admit the truth - we saw it, we were there - and then act in the way we ourselves know to be right, and help our brother or sister out of a jam. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

The Torah knows that we feel intuitively, naturally, that when we see someone with a problem, we should help.Rabbi Shimon

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