The field of social psychology has long been preoccupied with the patterns, mechanisms, and contributing factors of prosocial behavior. Colloquially, prosocial behavior is best defined as the altruistic deeds that connect us most to our fellow human beings, helping someone else simply because we can. Ideally, societies where prosocial behavior is more common would thrive and survive longer due to members supporting one another and generally getting along better. As such, the extent of any culture or group’s tendency to engage in prosocial behavior is of the utmost anthropological and psychological importance.
In testing the limits of prosocial behavior, social scientists have carried out various experiments to study peoples’ tendencies to engage in or refrain from prosocial behavior. Nowadays, YouTube and other similar media outlets are overflowing with videos of social experiments set to test people to determine if they will help an old lady cross the street, rescue an injured animal, lend money to a homeless or otherwise destitute civilian, etc. One famous study of prosocial behavior was designed by John Darley and Daniel Baston and is known as the Good Samaritan study. The Good Samaritan story (of New Testament fame) tells of a priest and a Levite who pass a struggling citizen on the road and don’t offer help, while a regular Samaritan does stop to provide support. It is from this parable that the term ‘good Samaritan’ derives.
Citing this study in his book Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l describes how Darley and Baston set up a real-life version of this story by recruiting participants from Princeton’s Theological Seminary and asking them to prepare a sermon on a given topic to be delivered in front of a large audience. Some of the participants were asked to include the Good Samaritan story in their talk. Shortly before the speeches, some participants were told they were running late to their speaking engagements, while others were told that if they hurried they’d be on time. A third group was reassured that they had plenty of time and need not rush. On the way, the researchers planted an actor pretending to be in acute physical distress whom all the students would encounter on their way to deliver their sermons.
The experimenters found that whether or not the students stopped to provide help to the confederate did not depend on the content of their speeches, but on how pressed for time they felt they were. The students who were on their way to speak about the Good Samaritan story were not more likely to stop; only those students who did not think they were running late were more likely than their peers to stop on their way and help the man in distress.
In Parshas Ki Seitzei, we learn of a unique Mitzvah related to prosocial behavior. The Pasuk says, “lo sireh es chamor achicha, o shoro, noflim baderech, v’hisalamta mei’hem; hakeim tikim imo,”- if you see your brother’s donkey or ox fallen on the roadside, do not ignore it, rather you shall surely help [him] pick it up [and reload its burden] (22:4; Rashi ibd.). This commandment to help our fellow Jew when his animal has essentially broken down is an echo to another Mitzvah, to come to the aid of one’s enemy when his animal has fallen on the road (Shemos 23:4). We might understand the need for a Mitzvah telling us to help our enemies, but isn’t it just commonly understood “good behavior” to help our friend when he is in need?
In thinking about this Mitzvah and the Good Samaritan story, R’ Sacks tells another story the likes of which many of us may have encountered. A Frum man was once driving up to the Catskills on an erev Shabbos when he saw another Yarmulka-wearing man pulled over on the shoulder with a clearly broken-down car. The driver stopped to help the other motorist and when he turned to drive off, wished him a Good Shabbos. The man laughed and explained that he was not actually Jewish, but merely wore the Kippah because he knew he’d be far more likely to get help if other Jewish drivers saw a fellow Yid broken down on the side of the highway.
As a people, we tend to be fairly good at helping one another. On a national level, we’ve created huge Chesed and Tzedaka organizations dedicated just to helping Jews in need. Perhaps on a personal level we even rise to the occasion when we see Jews who are struggling, whether on the highway or in a hospital or in line in a store or at the airport. It may seem intuitive, to some degree, to help a friend or family member (and every Jew is really both to us!). And yet, there is a reason why the Torah must command it. The test of prosocial behavior is not whether or not we will help someone in need, but the circumstances under which we are at risk of neglecting to do so. The Good Samaritan study demonstrated that even the most well-meaning people may get so caught up in their own good intentions that they may actually ignore the immediate needs of those closest to them, or right in front of their faces.
The Pasuk (22:3) tells us “lo suchal li’hisaleim,” do not ignore [your friends’ loss or need], and describes the situation in which we’d see the broken down donkey or ox as “on the road.” If we are on the road, ostensibly we have our own agenda there: perhaps we are on our way to do another important Mitzvah, or to take care of our own important matters. It is in these specific situations, when stopping to help is actually effortful and when it requires a small sacrifice on our part, that we are commanded that we must not ignore our fellow Jew’s distress.
Elul is a time of year when every Jew is engaged in self-reflection and Cheshbon HaNefesh. If we are pausing to take in the spiritual weight of this period, we become acutely aware of the looming judgment of the Days of Awe, the importance of engaging in the Teshuva process and reconnecting with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. It is at this time that we are actually most vulnerable to mistakenly taking on an “every man for himself” mentality. Swept up by the fear, awe, and trepidation characteristic of the month of Elul, we may find ourselves withdrawing from others, turning inward, preoccupied with our own individual Teshuva process and spiritual cleansing. Of course, this is part of the Avodah of the month of Elul, and time must be set aside for this exact pursuit. And, at the same time, this is can also be a precarious enterprise.
In looking at the Tefilos of the Yamim Noraim, one notices that all of our language is plural. When we say Selichos, when we recite Viduy, we say “al chet sh’chatanu,” we have sinned, “s’lach lanu,” forgive us. When we anoint Hashem as King over the universe and Sovereign over our lives, we do so in the plural. In fact, as we say in Unisaneh Tokef, the scariest part of the judgment is passing before Hashem “kivnei maron,” like sheep, in single file, for once we are being judged alone, all our flaws become all the more evident. Part of the Teshuva process and a saving grace in the judgment of the Yamim Noraim includes increasing our importance to Klal Yisrael as a whole. We want to come before Hashem and say, “You must grant me a year filled with blessings and success, because Your children need me - I am a valuable member of the team of the Jewish people!”
The Navi (Melachim II 4:13) recounts the story of the Isha Shunamis, who set up a special place for the Navi Elisha to rest when passing through Shunam. Geichazi, Elisha’s righthand man, asks the Isha Shunamis what he can provide for her to repay her. The Shunamis replies, “bi’soch ami anochi yosheves,” I dwell among my people. The Malbim explains this enigmatic phrase to imply that the Isha Shunamis did not want to be assessed independently from her people.
Citing the Zohar, the Malbim explains that this is an important lesson for anyone who comes before Hashem in prayer. To make a request of the Ribono Shel Olam means to put ourselves under His proverbial microscope, our worthiness of that request examined and analyzed. If we beseech Hashem solely on our own behalf, approaching Him as an individual, passing under the Shephard’s staff as He counts His sheep, one by one, we are far less likely to be seen favorably. But if we are among our people, if we have endeavored to find ways to be needed by Klal Yisrael, then any personal request now takes on a different tone, for it is a request that could indirectly benefit our fellow Jews, as well.
In combination, the lesson of the Isha Shunamis, the Mitzvah to help one’s fellow on the roadside, and l’havdil the Good Samaritan study, underscore the tremendous importance of not getting caught up in our own personal agendas, even L’shem Shamayim. Particularly during the month of Elul when we all are turning inward, let us strive to still keep an eye on our fellow Jews, ready to extend a hand to anyone in need. And, as much as this applies physically, we must also consider this important task in terms of our fellow Jews’ spiritual and emotional needs. We are only as strong as our weakest link, as spiritually healthy as the most conflicted among as, as whole as the most broken member of our beautiful, struggling nation. Even while we are doing the work of Teshuva and introspection within ourselves, it is especially critical that we are also remaining connected to our fellow Jews, striving to intertwine our needs and prayers for success and blessing with the overall global success of the Jewish people.
This week, look for opportunities to help your fellow Jews in any way you can. Even while you are throwing yourself into the Avodah of the month of Elul, even while the pressure of time passing and the Yamim Noraim fast approaching fills us with a sense of trepidation and even doom, do not rush past your fellow Jews’ needs because you are distracted by this pressure. Yes, your individual Teshuva process is important – in fact, your spiritual cleansing is as important to me as my own, for we all function as one body, one being. And, try to find ways to be connected to our people, to come before Hashem with the argument that you are needed. We all need each other; please, even while you sit alone to self-reflect and reconnect with Hashem on your own level, don’t ignore us. We need you, and we need you to remember to look for ways to help us – for we are all in need. In the merit of looking out for each other in these ways, may we access the Koach and clarity to engage wholeheartedly in the Avodah of this time period.