Sedra of the Week, The Jewish Press, July 8, 2005


The mice held their annual convention and the delegates came from all over. A major item on the agenda was a question of life and death, namely, how to escape sudden death by being swallowed by the cat. The main problem was that due to the silent footsteps of the cat, there was no advance warning and, hence, no time to run into the safety of the holes. One mouse offered a solution: All listened with rapt attention. "In order to hear the cat," said the delegate, "we must hang a bell on the catís neck, giving us enough time to hide." They applauded this brilliant solution. But the celebration ceased when one of the wiser delegates asked: "Who of us will hang the bell on the neck of the cat?"

The lesson of this story is that it is one thing to have great ideas, but it is something else to put it into practice if it requires the selfless and dangerous feat of "hanging the bell," of sounding the alarm before it is too late.

It is this test to which our sages point in their commentary on the pasuk in this sedra where we read "adam ki yamus bíohel"--if a man dies in the tent: the words and the teachings of the Torah cannot be sustained and implemented unless one kills his self (not himself) for its sake (Chukas 19:14; Berachos 43b).

This is still the key to the challenges facing us in America and Israel. The failure, the refusal to remove the atzmo, the self-interest, the drive for election and reelection and the ambition for affluence prevent the words and deeds needed to prevent destruction.

Note that our sages speak of the need for divrei Torah miskaymin, which means to implement. They do not speak of knowledge alone. They stress the word miskaymin to apply the divrei Torah to find solutions for vexing problems. It is in style now to have the words "dvar Torah" on the dinner programs of many Jewish organizations. But the dvar, without the word "Torah," would be more honest, for the authentic Torah given at Sinai is not followed.

Even in the Orthodox camp we see the atzmo of self-serving condemnations, resulting in the failure to hang the bell--to speak up when Jews, the Torah and Israel are maligned.

Recently I was present at a gathering of an Orthodox organization, where a public official was seeking support in an election. The candidate himself was present to give his campaign talk. There seemed to be unanimity for his endorsement, despite the well-publicized fact that he was seeking the endorsement of a political party of 90,000 members headed by a woman who said that "Jews are mass-murderers of people of color."

Since I [attend] this organizationís gathering only from time to time, I was reluctant to ask for the floor, hoping that one of the regulars would say something. But alas, no one wanted to hang the bell to say anything. It was then that I thought of our sagesí teaching, that where there are no men, you should strive to be a man (Perek 2:6).

In keeping with this advice I asked for the floor--which was not granted, because my reputation for hanging the bell had preceded me.

The candidate himself pointed to my raised hand and I was finally called upon. I asked how he could associate himself with the enemies of the Jews and of America. He did not deny their anti-Semitism. He said instead that you cannot reject 90,000 members because of the wrongs of one person. I countered, of course, that it was not just one person, for she is the head of the party.

This is just one example. There are times when the failure to protest evil is an indication that one is not truly upset. The Brisker Rav, zt"l, said that Job was punished by pain all over his body because of his silence when the plan to remove the Jewish peril to Egypt was presented. But why this particular punishment? The answer is that Job rationalized his silence by saying to himself that his words will be ineffective.

He was therefore afflicted with pain, to show that when you have pain you cry out because it hurts, and if you donít cry out it is because it does not hurt.

[DK comments: The candidate referred to above is of course Mayor Bloomberg, the meeting was the annual gathering of the Flatbush rabbinical board last June, and the anti-Semitic political leader was Lenora Fulani of the Independence Party. One Jewish leader in Brooklyn who subsequently proved himself equal to the task of belling the cat was Councilman Lew Fidler (D.-Brooklyn), who wrote a powerful op-ed for the July 29 Jewish Press heaping scorn on Mayor Bloomberg and all other political leaders in New York who have allied themselves with the Independence Party--and demanding that they all without exception break with Fulaniís rotten organization (my further comments on Fidlerís article and a link to it, are here).

As to Rabbi Hollanderís parable of the mice, it reminds me of "The Rats and the Mice," an 1839 poem by New York Post editor William Cullen Bryant that was also inspired by our cityís politics. In Bryantís Ratopolis, rats and mice live peaceably until the wealthy and powerful rats start to push their weight around at the expense of the cellar mice.

And worse,--Ďtwas rumored that
Full many a tyrant rat
Had sold his neighbors to the cat!

The mice protest in public assembly and the rats, well, letís just say they behave as arrogantly as our billionaire mayor when asked about his own trafficking with Felis catus.]