by Miri Korbman
In March 1964, the assault and murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese sparked horror and outrage when the New York Times reported that nearly 38 people had heard or witnessed the crime and failed to intervene or call for help. Though years later the New York Times retracted the original estimate of witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s murder and subsequent information about the incident revealed that several people did try to call for help, this unfortunate tragedy inspired important research by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latine on the bystander effect, which occurs as a result of diffusion of responsibility. This refers to the tendency for witnesses to an emergency or crisis to assume that someone else will come to the victim’s aid, leading most people to refrain from taking action themselves.
Taking responsibility is no easy task. Though in our hearts we may believe that we’d have the wherewithal to activate and come to the aid of others in times of need, this may not necessarily be the case. Often in crises or emergency situations, we tend to be impeded by one or more of the following misconceptions: Perhaps we think others are more capable, that someone else who “knows what they’re doing” will respond effectively, underestimating our own abilities or diffusing responsibility onto others who we hope – or assume – can be more helpful than we think we can be. Sometimes we might tell ourselves that it’s not our business, either for the sake of preserving others’ privacy or because we believe it’s their problem, not ours, and it’s only fair for people to solve their own problems for themselves. And still other times we feel hopeless, at a loss for a solution to the challenging predicament another person is facing, despairing of any hope that we can adequately remedy the situation, and this feeling of futility and ineffectiveness drives us to give up before we even pivot toward a proactive position.
In this week’s parsha, after learning about the impending fate of the cities of Sedom and Amorah, Avraham entreats God on their behalf, pleading, “Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha?” will You destroy the righteous with the sinners? He then proceeds to try to negotiate with God, asking Hashem to spare the cities of Sedom and Amorah, hoping that any number of righteous individuals can be found in those cities to warrant God’s mercy, but to no avail (18: 23-33). Avraham does not have to get involved in the affairs of these cities, particularly where so much sin and immorality has taken place. Furthermore, despite the fact that his nephew, Lot, is living in Sedom, Avraham does not ask Hashem to spare him, and Rashi (18:2) notes that one of the Malachim was sent to save Lot specifically. Yet, that is not Avraham’s concern. Avraham asks God to spare these people because he can. He takes responsibility not because it’s his direct problem or for his personal gain, nor because it is an easy and feasible task, but simply because it is the right thing to do, and because he cares to protect the wellbeing of his fellow man.
How does Avraham know that Sedom and Amorah are in trouble? Hashem Himself tells Avraham that He plans to destroy the cities. The pasuk relates Hashem’s consideration before relaying this information to Avraham. Hashem says, “HaMichaseh Ani Me’Avraham Asher Ani Oseh?” should I hide from Avraham what I intend to do [to Sedom and Amorah]? “Ki Yidativ,” for I have chosen him, “Limaan asher yitzaveh es banav… v’shamru derech Hashem,” in order that he should teach his descendants to keep the ways of God, “La’Asos Tzedaka U’mishpat” to act with righteousness and justice (18:17-19). The Seforno explains the words “Ki Yidativ,” to mean “for I have chosen Avraham as a symbol of righteousness,” and notes that Hashem stops to consider sharing this information with Avraham in order that Avraham should protest, not because his actions will change anything. God clearly knows there are not enough Tzadikim in the cities of Sedom and Amorah to spare them their impending doom and destruction – but this way, Avraham can experience firsthand Hashem’s willingness to entertain his negotiations, and through this process, to recognize Hashem’s love for all mankind, even the wicked. Avraham is meant to teach his children the importance of emulating Hashem’s ways, which include standing up for others, taking collective responsibility, intervening on behalf of those who are in trouble, even if you do not know them, even if you feel distant from their problems, even if you feel uncertain that there is anything you can do – these are Divine mannerisms of justice; this is the meaning of “V’shamru derech Hashem.”
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes in this week’s Covenant and Conversation that Avraham’s willingness to daven on behalf of Sedom is in direct contrast to the diffusion of responsibility exhibited by the biblical personalities that precede him. Adam and Chava each blamed another in the aftermath of Chet Etz HaDaas. Kayin tried to avoid blame when questioned about his brother Hevel’s whereabouts. Noach, privy, like Avraham, to insider information regarding the impeding destruction of the entire universe, missed the opportunity to pray for his fellows, to plead with God and with the people directly to try to affect change and save them from utter annihilation. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Raba on Breishis (30:10), notes that this is why the Pasuk says “es HaElokim HisHalech Noach,” that Noach walked with God (6:9), whereas regarding himself, Avraham says, “Asher HisHalachti Lifanav,” that Avraham walked before God (24:40). Rashi explains that Noach required God’s assistance in maintaining his moral and righteous posture, whereas Avraham had these qualities on his own.
Avraham Avinu was not a bystander. While he could easily have said, “this is not my problem,” or despaired of being able to help a people so unlike him as to be a strange and foreign entity to Avraham’s moral, ethical, and Godly sensibilities, he persisted in doing what he could on behalf of the people of Sedom and Amorah. Hashem specifically shared His plans with Avraham so that he would have the opportunity to exercise this activation for justice, this social responsibility, and to see that Hashem’s way is to look for a means of sparing others from pain. Hashem wanted Avraham’s lesson to us, his children, to be this: Where you see injustice, impending disaster, desperate need, do not fall prey to diffusion of responsibility – stand up, fight the fight, pray on behalf of others, do whatever you can to shoulder the burden of your fellow.
Rabban Gamliel says in Pirkei Avos (2:5), “b’makom she’ain ish, hishtadel lihiyos ish,” in a place where there is no man [to stand up, to take responsibility], make an effort to do so. The Mishnah does not say we are guaranteed to succeed, or that the outcome depends on us. Rather, Rabban Gamliel encourages to strive, to try our best to exercise our ability to respond when others might stand idly by.
This week, consider the very human tendency to diffuse responsibility, and consider our capacity as Avraham’s descendants and emissaries of God to do the opposite. We may not think that the world’s problems are our problems - perhaps we are used to flying beneath the radar, keeping our heads down, minding our own business, and perhaps we can still come to the aid of our fellows, our neighbors, answering the plight of those who lack the voice or the platform or the permission to speak up for themselves. Let us be mindful of the hopelessness that can dissuade us from taking action on behalf of injustice, prejudice, or other ailments of society, and instead take upon ourselves “L’Hishtadel,” merely to strive; for if it is a threat to humanity, to morality, to safety, to human decency, to life – it’s our responsibility.