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Claiming Your Moment

Friday, 6 July, 2018 - 10:06 am

Raymond Zack. Kitty Genovese. Wang Yue.

These are just a few famous examples of the Bystander Effect. In each case there were many bystanders who observed a crime or tragedy and did nothing.

Social scientists have labored to understand and explain this enigma.

In many instances the bystanders have simply remarked, “If no one else was doing anything, I figured I did not need to either.”

Some might even point to the Torah, quoting from Mishlei (Proverbs), “Do not stand in the place of great men.” If people of greater stature than me are doing nothing, I don’t need to act.

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This week’s parsha, Pinchas, tells us a different story. A terrible plague broke out amongst the Jewish people due to rampant spiritual failing.

Nobody was doing anything about it. Not Moshe. Not Aharon. Not the elders of the tribes. No one.

Suddenly, Pinchas stepped in and acted. He immediately diffused the situation and was an overnight hero. Hashem rewarded him by appointing him (and his future progeny) to the priesthood.

Pinchas could have easily made the calculation that no one else was acting, so he better just mind his own business.

But, he didn’t. He acted swiftly.

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I’ve often wondered why the Torah teaches us this example of springing into action in the curious situation of moral failure rather than physical danger. Isn’t it more important to save a life, prevent abuse or protect property than engage in ethical and religious behavior? (Granted, the spiritual fiasco caused a physical calamity. But a more obvious lesson would be gleaned from a clear case of mortal danger).

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We can understand this by better appreciating what motivated Pinchas to step up when no one else did? What caused him to overlook the inaction of much greater individuals? In the language of social scientists, how did he separate himself from the herd mentality and how did he have the courage to go against the tide? Especially, if he was not directly saving lives. He was only removing spiritual flaws, which in turn stopped the plague.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains it this way:

When something that you can have a positive impact on comes to your attention, you must step up to the plate and get involved. The inaction of those responsible and the silence of the regular sources of inspiration is not an indication that you, too, can stand by idly. For every person is charged with a unique spiritual mission—part of the Divine plan that no one else in the world can fulfill. The inaction of others may be G-d’s way of nudging you to claim the moment that is rightfully yours.

When I am faced with a situation, it is G-d’s way of telling me, “I put you here. Do something.”

If this is my motivation, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a dramatic life-saving event or a simple gesture to someone who is having a bad day. It’s always about me looking at my purpose in any given moment and place.

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Whether it’s sticking up for a fellow coworker, teaching my child about kosher when she wants something in the supermarket, calling the authorities to prevent child abuse, or politely declining a Friday night dinner invitation because it’s Shabbat – it’s always my moment to shine. The rest of my coworkers are doing nothing. My child’s Jewish friends are all eating nonkosher. The whole family is ignoring the abuse. Everyone at shul is taking off this Friday night because it’s the World Cup.

But, am I seizing my moment?

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