Dear Parents,

The tendency to take advantage of and bully those who are weak and without defenders exists within all people.  That is the reason, almost all the Mefarshim explain, for the numerous times the Torah goes out of its way to warn against oppressing a convert, as well as a widow and orphan.  These three categories represent people who are alone, defenseless and without support.  It is all too easy to take advantage of them, and therefore the Torah enumerates a number of times that such action is forbidden and such an attitude is anti-Torah.

The tendency to take advantage of and bully those who are weak and without defenders exist within all people.When bullying occurs within groups of people, and especially children in school, it is more likely in an environment and culture in which bullying is tolerated by peers.  If one child victimizes another and the remaining children are silent about it, then the bullying is more likely to occur. The reverse is equally true.  Opposing such behavior through an attitude of “we don’t do that around here,” spells the difference between a bully-prone and a bully-free environment.

Those who are silent are referred to as bystanders and they play a key role.  They also bear direct responsibility.  Commenting on the Pasuk (Shemos 22:21) “Any widow or orphan you shall not oppress,” the Chizkuni points out that unlike the other commandments in this part of Mishpatim, the admonition against harming an orphan or widow is stated in the plural (Lo S’Anun). The reason, he explains, is because “all are considered sinners, even those who didn’t actively participate in the harassing behavior, because they saw the victim’s embarrassment and were silent and did not protest.”

In reality, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.You may ask, what is the Torah’s expectation in a situation where the perpetrators are very strong and aggressive?  How can the Torah obligate bystanders to protest in such a risky situation?   The answer is apparently that while an individual may be too powerless to stand up to the individual or certainly to a group that is strong and powerful, a group of people do have that wherewithal, and are obligated to exercise it.   A proof of that can be found (Bereishis 34:27) in the fact the common people of the city of Shechem were killed on account of the bad behavior of Shechem the prince. According to the Seforno, they were held liable for condoning and not standing up to the lawless practices of the royal family.

In reality, there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.  One is either enabling the bad behavior through his silence and inaction, or one is proactively deterring the bad behavior through speaking out or at least projecting a non-verbal message that it is not OK to act in such a way towards another.

Adults – both teachers and parents need to play their part in deterring bullying behavior.  However, the most potent force to stop bullying behavior is the peer group that does not tolerate such behavior.  It is in this regard that the adults have an added responsibility to continually sensitize the children towards the feelings and needs of others.  To build up the child’s feelings of self-worth, sense of justice and the self-confidence to be a strong voice for care and compassion.

Stories of our Gedolim who displayed extraordinary sensitivity to others should be a regular feature of the Shabbos table…This is accomplished through role-modeling and verbalizing a sensitivity towards others, especially those with special needs and unfortunate circumstances.  Stories of our Gedolim who displayed extraordinary sensitivity to others should be a regular feature of the Shabbos table and discussions.  While such inspiring stories abound, a good place to start, for example, are stories of the late Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Avrohom HaKohein Pam, zt’l and his superhuman concern for and efforts on behalf of irreligious Russian immigrant children in Israel. He galvanized world-wide support for a group that others may have not given a second thought about.

As Torah Jews, we pride ourselves in our ability to follow a myriad of Halachos, down to their most intricate detail.  It is most noteworthy, that these sensitivities to those who are weaker and defenseless, are part and parcel of the Halachos outlined in this Parsha of Halachos, Parashas Mishpatim.

Have a caring and wonderful Shabbos,

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