Cantor Eyal Bitton shares a few thoughts on prayer and the parasha of the week.

Try Not to be a Nazi

2023-12-06 Parashat Vayeshev

Last year, when my daughter was six, we went to a theater to watch her favorite movie, “The Sound of Music”. She just loved it. We sat in the second row (she wanted to sit right in the front, but I explained that it would hurt my neck too much). We both had a fabulous time. The story is so compelling, and the music is just superb. 

After the movie, my daughter turned to me and said, “I think the theme of the movie is ‘try not to be a Nazi’.”

I thought that was hilarious! But it was also accurate. Everyone assumes that they’re good. Everyone assumes that they’d never side with bad people. Everyone watching this movie recognizes the Nazis are evil and therefore identify with the Von Trapp family, since they are “the good guys”.

But history shows us a different story. History shows us that it is easy for us to fall into the mob mentality. It is far easier to be part of the crowd than to be apart from the crowd.

In this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayeshev, we read about how Joseph resisted the advances of his master’s wife. Note that there was a power dynamic as well, making it even more difficult for Joseph. Note, additionally, that the advances didn’t occur just once or even twice, but multiple times. In the face of temptation, Joseph showed immense character in resisting her advances, in resisting temptation. 

Joseph rejects her advances because he does not want to betray his master’s trust. He does not want to betray his master’s friendship. Also, he does not want to commit a sin. In other words, he recognizes that this would be wrong on more than one level.

It would have been easy for him to say yes. He was there in the moment. He was alone. There were multiple occasions. Yet he held onto his principles.

There are plenty of examples of mob mentality throughout history. There are examples of spontaneous acts of evil, such as lynch mobs. Then there’s the example of something that is less spontaneous, but also reflects a mob mentality, the Salem witch trials. 

And we see this today on our streets, in our campuses, online, and elsewhere, as thousands and thousands join forces against Israel and her supporters. Generally, Israel’s supporters are Jews. Generally, Israel’s supporters want Israel to exist, while the mob wants it destroyed. We’ve seen them target Jewish restaurants. We’ve seen them harass Jews on campus, on subways, on the streets. Jews do not feel safe. 

Many of us have watched in horror as we’ve seen friends, acquaintances, and institutions applaud, defend, or excuse atrocities against Jews. We’ve seen individuals and organizations ignore or refuse to condemn the systemic rape of Israeli women, girls, and men by Hamas. Some people have even cast doubt on the veracity of the claims that Israelis have faced any sexual violence. We’ve seen heads of respected universities like MIT, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania argue that calling for the genocide of the Jews does not always constitute harassment because these calls have to be contextualized.

It’s remarkable to see people and institutions join the anti-Israel movement or take a greater role in it, particularly following the most gruesome slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust. It’s remarkable to see people and institutions take part in, excuse, or turn a blind eye to the targeting of Jews on campus, of Jewish-owned businesses, of Jewish schools and houses of worship. 

I recall “Elohai Netzor Leshoni Me’ra”, the silent prayer at the conclusion of the Amidah. The text pleads with God, “Frustrate the designs of those who plot evil against me… Answer my prayer for the deliverance of Your people.”

It’s easy to join the mob. It’s harder to be like Joseph and resist temptation, to show moral courage. When so many are choosing to join the massive wave of calls to destroy the Jewish state and to target Jews who support Israel’s right to exist, remember my daughter’s words: “try not to be a Nazi.”