What Pesach teaches us about how we should treat other people

Bullying has reached epidemic proportions according to Australian research, which suggests that one in four students has experienced some sort of bullying face-to-face, and one in five has experienced bullying online. It is estimated that there were around 45 million bullying incidents across all schools in Australia last year alone, and this number may very well increase in 2019 (Dept. of Education and Training, 2018).

Of all the various forms of bullying, hurtful teasing was the most prevalent type experienced by students, followed by having hurtful lies told about them. However, online bullying is fast becoming the most common form of bullying in secondary schools as students gain access to the variety of social media sites available to them.

Concern for others

In Jewish thought, our concern for others is just as important as our concern for ourselves. Standing by and doing nothing is considered an offence. The command, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Vayikra 19:17) obligates us to intervene to not only save another’s life, but to also assist in any way that would prevent harm to another.

We are asked to involve ourselves in the struggles that others face and not ignore the challenges they endure.

Various episodes throughout our Tanach demonstrate how seriously we consider this concept of social responsibility. In Exodus, when a small percentage of people contributed to the sin of the golden calf, the entire nation was condemned for allowing it to happen. Similarly, when a single individual stole from the treasury after the capture of Jericho in the Book of Joshua, the entire group was held responsible. Indeed, the Talmud teaches us “Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh bazeh”, that each and every one of us is responsible for each other (Shevuot 39a).

The first Jewish “upstander”

From a Jewish perspective, it is insufficient to oppose bullying when it occurs, we need to challenge such behaviour, so as to reduce the likelihood of it occurring in the first place. In thinking about Pesach, we have to consider the main character of the Pesach story, Moses. Moses was possibly the first upstander (as opposed to bystander) who intervened when he saw two men fighting. As one of the men raised his hand to strike the other, Moses asked him, “why are you about to strike your fellow?” (Shmot 2:13). We learn from this incident that even before any wrongdoing has occurred, we still have a responsibility to intervene in order to prevent any form of bullying that may occur.

It is not only physical bullying that is prohibited by the Torah, verbal abuse (teasing, spreading rumours, gossiping), which causes emotional distress, is also forbidden. The Torah teaches us, “Do not oppress another… because I am Hashem, your G-d,” (Vayikra 25:17). Our commentators clarify that this refers to verbal oppression (ona’at devarim), namely that an individual must not antagonise another nor give bad advice. And, if you should ask, “Who will ever know my secret (in taunting someone)?”, the end of the verse reminds us that ultimately G-d is aware of our every action.

Jewish sources are replete with references to the serious nature of embarrassing or humiliating others, and they do not shy away from articulating the severe consequences of such behaviours. The Talmud (Bava Metzia, 59a) reminds us that “one who embarrasses another person publicly does not have a portion in the world to come.” A page earlier, the same tractate informs us that anyone who causes others to be embarrassed publicly “is comparable to a murderer.” While murder may be regarded as extreme in comparison to embarrassing others, the underlying rationale is clear – each of us is created in the image of G-d, the way we treat or mistreat others is, in part, a reflection of the way we treat G-d.

Looking after one another

The wisdom contained in Jewish sources teaches us how we should behave towards others. It provides a blueprint for all mankind as to how we achieve an ethical and moral society. One of the most famous verses in the Torah obligates us to “love our fellow as we love ourselves” (Vayikra 19:18). Indeed, from a very young age, our students learn to sing this as part of their Jewish education.

Our Rabbis teach us that the Torah is “the book of the generations of Adam” (Sifra, Parashat Kedoshim). This serves to remind us that we all come from the same ancestors and, therefore, we all belong to the same family.

We make an effort on Pesach more than any other festival to gather together with family and friends. Pesach also reminds us of our obligation to look after the stranger and our neighbour. At the very beginning of the Seder, we invite those who are hungry or have no place to eat to join us in celebrating freedom. The festival is not a celebration for just the individual, or even a single family, rather, it is a celebration of and for the community. We celebrate Pesach in the way we ought to lead our lives; extending care, consideration and love to those near and far.


ronnengraumanAbout the author

Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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