“Leave me alone” is often synonymous with the all-too-common expression: “I don’t want to get involved.”
I was a young teenager back in 1964 when the shocking and brutal murder of Kitty Genovese took place. The prevailing narrative (much of which has now been disproven) was that 38 neighbors witnessed the attack and murder outside their apartment building, which took place over a 30-minute period, during which she repeatedly cried out for help, but no one stepped in or bothered to call the police. They didn’t want to get involved.
The story sent shockwaves through New York City and beyond, and led to significant research into the bystander effect (the theory that the more people present, the less likely any one person is to take action).
The Torah portion of Ki Tisa has the dubious distinction of containing the shameful debacle of the Golden Calf. A nation who experienced the greatest Divine revelation in history at Mount Sinai only a few weeks prior, suddenly loses itself completely, and, in the absence of Moses, looks to a man-made statue as its new leader. A monumental tragedy and the worst sin in our national history.
Moses returns to the aftermath of this travesty and breaks the Tablets in righteous indignation. But he also pleads for forgiveness for his errant nation,1 and succeeds.
Yet when he comes down the mountain, he calls for those who are loyal to G‑d to join him in rooting out the evil-doers in their midst. The wicked are punished and some 3,000 people are put to death.
What’s going on here? Didn’t Moses persuade G‑d to forgive the people for their sin? This is what you call forgiveness? Why are 3,000 people dying?!
Tradition explains that those who were executed were the rebellious ringleaders, the rabble rousers, the active perpetrators who convinced their brethren to follow their lead down the idolatrous path. These people simply could not be forgiven.
Then there were the casual bystanders, those who were not actively involved but who stood around and “sort of” participated. Perhaps they were watching from the sidelines. Maybe they answered amen or something. It is this second group who G‑d forgave.
But if they weren’t really involved, why did they need any forgiveness at all? What was their sin?
The answer provides a powerful insight, relevant then, now, and at all times.
A bystander who could have helped but did not, is not so innocent. Precisely because they stood by without protesting is what makes them sinners.
Over 600,000 males left Egypt.2 The instigators punished by death numbered a mere 3,000, which means the ratio of innocent bystanders to active sinners was 200 to 1! Surely, this silent majority could have easily overwhelmed the agitators and stopped the Golden Calf from ever materializing.
Watching silently while all that is holy is desecrated and profaned is nothing less than sacrilege. So this huge bulk of basically decent people who turned a blind eye to the evil around them and said, “I don’t want to get involved,” indeed required Divine forgiveness.
The vast majority of people are decent, moral, and law-abiding. But if the good people stand aside and say, “leave me alone,” or “I don’t want to get involved,” then, tragically, the dark forces will prevail, and our world will be all the poorer for it.
The episode of the Golden Calf reminds us that as we go through life, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”