“If you don’t speak up, you’re part of the problem.”
This sentiment appears in my Facebook newsfeed fairly regularly, in response to whatever atrocity has most recently been perpetuated against whichever individual/group/idea/etc. And to be honest, it stresses me out. Sometimes it’s obvious that whatever happened is indeed an atrocity, but sometimes I feel that I don’t know enough about the case to speak out responsibly and accurately. And while I’m being so honest, I’ll confess that it’s kind of exhausting to be called upon to take a stand about everything. How many of the world’s issues can realistically be said to be my responsibility? True, my exhaustion pales in comparison to the suffering experienced by millions of people very day. But is it realistic to think I can help them all? And true, we have the maxim “shtikah k’hoda’ah,” that silence is tantamount to agreement. But will people really think I agree with obvious atrocities if I don’t actively speak out against them? Is it my task to search out everything in the world that anyone is doing wrong and blast my disapproval across social media, lest anyone think I agree?
I encounter a similar dilemma with charity solicitations. We are blessed with an inordinate number of correspondents who want our money, probably dating back to the first time I made a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I don’t regret that donation, as one of my closest friends has CF and I know how important their work is, but I confess I was not thrilled to discover that it got me on the mailing lists of too many organizations to count, which all send me an astounding number of letters throughout each year explaining that this girl’s cleft palate, or that grandmother’s home care, or the other teenager’s summer camp, are my responsibility. I am so susceptible to their calls for help that I make my husband sort the mail and be the one to figure out which go in the garbage and which we’ll respond to.
Because of course, we can’t give to every cause. Just like I can’t actively stand up for every cause. But how do we choose?
We might find one poignant approach to this question – if not actually an answer – in the story of Gidon.
As we discussed previously, when Gidon is first greeted by an angel with the words “G-d is with you,” he responds “And if Hashem is with us, why has all this found us? Where are His wonders, that our forefathers told us, saying, Did Hashem not take us out of Egypt? And now Hashem has abandoned us and given us over in the hand of Midian!” (Shoftim 6:13) There are many ways in which G-d could have responded to this. For instance, I might have expected some anger: “How can you blame G-d? Don’t you realize it’s the Jewish people’s own fault that He let Midian take over?” Instead, He responds in verse 14 with the following surprising encouragement:
וַיִּפֶן אֵלָיו ה’ וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ בְּכֹחֲךָ זֶה וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכַּף מִדְיָן הֲלֹא שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:
And Hashem turned to him and said, Go with this your strength and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?
What is “this your strength”? Has Gidon expressed any strength? Sarcasm, perhaps. Sadness, maybe. But strength? What does “this” refer to, and in what way is it a strength that can be used to save the people?
Commentaries offer a range of explanations, but one line in Malbim is particularly striking:
כח הטענה, כי אחרי ראה שטוען בעד סור ההשגחה מישראל זה אות שדבר זה סוער בלבבו, והוא מוכן לתשועתם:
The strength of complaint, for once He saw that he complained about the removal of Divine providence from Israel, this is a sign that this matter storms in his heart, and he is ready to save them.
Malbim explains that far from being a weakness, Gidon’s negativity is a strength. It demonstrates that the situation faced by his people disturbs him in his kishkes, moving him on a visceral level. At this point in the story, all he does with that roiling storm is lash out – but that lashing out shows the storm is there and can be directed into a strength. He just has to recognize that potential and act.
I was blown away when I read this explanation by the powerful imagery of a storm raging in a person’s heart. At the same time, I had to wonder: Was Gidon the only one who felt this way? Surely there were other Jews who were in pain over their situation; why was Gidon the one chosen to save them?
Maybe for the same reason I take a stand on some issues, and give to some charities, but not others – even though I believe in the importance of all of them.
I once had a conversation with a friend about the challenge of finding inspiring, motivating ways to teach our kids about prayer. She passionately shared some of her ideas about how our children’s day school could enhance students’ connection to Hashem and prayer, and I couldn’t help but agree. Instead of going to the administration with the conversation, however, I encouraged her to do so. “This isn’t my issue,” I told her. “I agree with you, and I need you to do it, because I can’t do it like you can.” The problem, and potential solution, were storming in her heart, not mine – even though I thought she was likely right – and that made it her strength, not mine.
It’s hard to know why some issues storm one person’s heart while others storm another. I am moved to respond with passion to any number of issues, including but not limited to: singular/plural agreement (this growing trend of saying things like “there’s three of them” is a blight upon our society!); the notion of shivim panim l’Torah (I’ve been known to spend half a semester teaching different interpretations of just one pasuk); and people starving (those are the solicitations I have the hardest time ignoring, even when I’m not sure if the organization is even real). Are the things that move me the most important issues out there? On some level, I’m not sure it matters; these are the ones that get my heart going, so these are the ones that I am best suited to address. And I am so grateful that others are moved by other things, because unity notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking that the only way we can possibly tackle all the world’s many problems, big and small, is if we split them up. I certainly can’t tackle them all!
Maybe these differences between us are part of the way G-d orchestrates His plans for the world. “Have I not sent you?” Has He not sent each of us, brewed a unique storm in each of our hearts to stir us to different types of contribution to the world? And sometimes on a smaller scale, to enrich our own lives and the lives of those close to us?
Thinking about this line in Malbim, I was reminded of a college friend who was frustrated with the guys she had been set up with and their apparent lack of passion for… anything at all. “Care about something!” she could be heard venting.
Certainly, our storms can change. I have recently come to be much more aware of, and stormy about, an issue that just a few years ago barely registered on my radar. A storm might come upon us in an instant, or it might brew slowly, gathering wind and speed and ferocity. Either way, it has the potential to explode into a force for good, if we can recognize it as a strength that may well have been sent by G-d.
That, of course, is where the real challenge lies: in recognizing both the storm and its potential. Gidon himself had no idea he was the one best suited to save his generation from Midian. Although he must have been aware of how he felt about the Midianite raiders, perhaps it had been going on so long that he had come to take both the situation and his feelings about it for granted. He needed a wake-up call, and he needed to be taught that his pain could be transformed into the strength that would allow him – yes, him, despite his persistent disbelief that he could really do it – to save his people from Midian.
Unfortunately, few of us have angels show up to kick us in the pants. But maybe learning Gidon’s story can remind us to search our own hearts, to recognize the clouds roiling, to feel the lighting charge us to correct people’s grammar, discover eight different ways to read the same pasuk, feed the hungry, take a stand… To go wherever the winds move us, enriching lives and changing the world.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.