Heed Torah’s call to ‘not remain indifferent’

Rabbi James Bennett

By Rabbi James Bennett

“There was once a boy named Pierre, who only would say,’I don’t care!’ Read his story, my friend, for you’ll find at the end that a suitable moral lies there.” 

—from “Pierre,” by Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book, set to music by Carole King, has been a cautionary tale for children and their families for nearly 50 years. In this delightful story, our Pierre learns from a hungry lion the importance of caring. 

Our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parashat Ki Tetze, taught the very same lesson centuries earlier, albeit without the aid of a hungry lion! 

In Deuteronomy chapter 22, an ox or sheep or ass gone astray serves much the same role, teaching us that it is our responsibility to care. In the cases raised by the Torah, we are taught that when we see an animal that belongs to someone else, we are to do everything we can to take care of it until we can return it to its rightful owner. The same law applies to a physical object that someone loses. We are obligated to take care of things that belong to others, making every effort to return them to their owner in the best condition possible. The Torah famously commands us “You must not remain indifferent.”

While such a commandment seems profoundly simple and self-evident. The Torah recognizes that if we cannot even be counted on to automatically care when we come across a lost animal that certainly belongs to another person, or if we find something that someone else lost, how much the moreso must we be compelled to care about things that are perhaps even more significant. 

These laws, I believe, are part of the Torah’s deliberate effort to get us “outside of ourselves,” to struggle against our tendency to be selfish, to move us from the particular to the universal. The Torah wants us to realize that indifference is a false choice; indifference will lead us to destruction.

Just look around at the current state of affairs in our world today. To many people, things feel horribly broken. Problems abound, such as the threat to our planet posed by climate change and environmental destruction, to the looming specter of war across the globe, widespread poverty, hunger and illness, the spread of hatred and prejudice, growing gun violence, polarization here and abroad, growing anxiety, depression and mental illness, and much more. 

Bemoaning these problems is not enough. We must care about them, and see ourselves as obligated to work to solve them. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in “No Time for Neutrality,” wrote that “Most vividly the Jews feel that the world is not redeemed, that the present order of things is appalling. There is no anxiety in Judaism about personal salvation. What matters is universal salvation.”

At times, the problems facing our world can seem overwhelming and impossible to resolve. But like the famous question, “How do you eat an elephant?” the answer is simple: “One bite at a time!” Rabbi Tarphon reminded us in the Talmud that “It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” 

We don’t have to solve all the problems of the world, but we are not permitted to ignore them. We are not permitted to remain indifferent. We are commanded to care.