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Do Not Stand Idly By

There is a famous quote from the Bible: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” (Leviticus 19:16) 

We are constantly confronted with this dilemma.

On my daily commute, walking from the train station to work, I see homeless people lining the streets begging for some help, any help.

They are often so tired and so cold that they can’t even ask for money anymore so they simply hold up a sign.

They stand in front of upscale eateries like Starbucks and Pret a Manger,  where D.C. workers constantly stream in and out, paying upwards of $2.50 just for a cup of coffee.

It’s morally wrong to see other people suffering and we do nothing about it. But we do that all the time, don’t we?

Even in the Bible we see that brothers betray brothers who are in need.

We read tomorrow in synagogue about the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his own jealous brothers. 

How do we understand such behavior?

When Simeon and Levi wanted to kill Joseph, why didn’t Judah simply save him, instead of “compromising” so that instead he wound up a slave?

There are more sophisticated people than me, Bible scholars, who can probably answer that question in an erudite way.

But I look at it from a simpleton’s point of view. I think that God was trying to teach us something about human nature, about how to operate in the real world.

Here’s the major lesson of this episode, for me: When people are out to do some serious harm, simply standing there waving your hands is more likely to get you killed than to help the victim whatsoever.

So Judah didn’t tell his brothers to “stop,” knowing that they would not listen to him, and maybe would have turned on him as well.

Instead, he intervened in a way that would surely make a positive difference, even if it wasn’t necessarily the most desirable alternative.

He put his focus on saving Joseph’s life. And in the end, Joseph did indeed survive, and come back to thrive and even save the very brothers who had hurt him.

At work, every day, we often find our circumstances less than ideal. And we all know the story; no need to wade into the details of every single lack.

But the worst thing, the most demoralizing thing, about a job that isn’t perfect is the sight of human beings treated disrespectfully.

When you embarrass another human being, when you bring them into shame, you are in fact killing them in a certain respect.

So, in my mind, there is a moral obligation “not to stand idly by” while the spirit of a coworker gets murdered.

This doesn’t mean openly confronting every person who says insensitive, insulting, or even harassing things. Sometimes you simply cannot.

It does mean doing what you can to mitigate the situation, to restore a shred of respect to someone who’s been broken down unfairly, through no fault of their own, just because they’re out there trying to earn a day’s bread.


All opinions my own. Public domain. CCO Creative Commons Photo via Pixabay.

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