March 7th, 2024

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There is a timeless Jewish folklore legend, often set in the quaint, mythical town of Chelm, renowned for its endearing tales of simplicity and wit. The story always elicits a wry smile but also imparts a timeless lesson regarding the essence of community and the significance of each individual’s contribution.

One day, the residents of Chelm decided they were going to celebrate a great communal occasion, and that each household should contribute a bottle of wine that would be poured into a collective barrel. The barrel would then provide a blend of the town’s finest vintages for all to enjoy on the great day.

The local beadle was charged with taking the barrel from home to home, where each family poured their bottle of wine into the barrel, so that on the festive day everyone would benefit from the full selection of wines from across the community.

Finally, the day of the celebration arrived, and, with great excitement, the community president was given the honor of opening the spigot into the first glass of wine. Imagine his surprise – and everyone else’s – when the liquid that emerged was crystal clear. The president took a sip, and lo and behold – it was water.

Apparently, each contributor to the wine appeal had reasoned that if they substituted water for wine, among all the other contributions – who would notice? The result was a barrel of water – and great disappointment.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The greatest folly in a community effort is the illusion that someone else will do it.” His pithy observation was thoroughly underscored in 1968 by a seminal study conducted by John M. Darley, a professor of psychology at Princeton, and Bibb Latané, a prominent social psychologist at Columbia.

The study focused on a phenomenon they defined as the “bystander effect,” where individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Critically, the lesser the number of bystanders, the more likely any one of them is to help.

Darley and Latané conceived the study after the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death outside her apartment in New York City. Reports claimed that numerous witnesses did nothing to intervene or contact the police. The researchers sought to understand why the witnesses failed to act, hypothesizing that the presence of others can lead to a diffusion of responsibility, with each bystander feeling less pressure to respond due to the assumption that someone else will do so.

To test their hypothesis, Darley and Latané conducted a series of experiments. One of the most notable involved participants being placed in a room alone or with others – who were actually confederates of the researchers and not real participants.

During the experiment, participants overheard what seemed to be a real emergency: for example, a person having a seizure in an adjacent room. The key measure was whether participants would leave the room to try and get help and how quickly they would do so.

The findings were striking. Participants were significantly less likely to help when they believed that others were also aware of the seizure. If they were alone, 85% of participants went for help, compared to only 31% when they believed that there were four other witnesses.

This compelling evidence of the “bystander effect” and the diffusion of responsibility demonstrated how the presence of others inhibits people from taking action in emergency situations.

This Saturday, in synagogues across the world, we will hear Parshat Shekalim, recalling the time in Jewish history when every adult Jew gave a half-shekel donation towards the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem. This passage from Exodus (30:11-16) describes God’s commandment to Moses to take a census of the Israelite men over the age of twenty by having each one give a half shekel of silver.

It has always struck me as odd that each person was expected to give the same amount, notwithstanding their economic circumstances. But perhaps this was God’s way of ensuring that the “bystander effect” never gained traction among the Jewish people.

By mandating the same amount from everyone, the Torah emphasizes a revolutionary concept: not just the equal worth of every individual’s contribution to communal life but the importance of everyone’s involvement in society, not just letting others do the work while you stand on the sidelines.

This message of half-shekel uniformity is that no one’s offering is deemed less significant because of its monetary value. It is a statement that every person, regardless of their economic status, has an invaluable role to play in the community’s well-being and sanctity. This inclusivity fosters a sense of belonging and significance among all members, reinforcing the idea that collective strength is derived from the unity and commitment of its individuals. No one can ever afford to be a bystander, and no community can afford to have bystanders.

The equality of everyone’s contribution also serves as a reminder that in the eyes of God, the intentions and heartfelt commitment behind an act of giving are as important, if not more so, than the gift itself. This perspective is an inspiration for a community where values like compassion, empathy, and collective responsibility are paramount, creating an environment where everyone’s participation is not only valued but seen as essential to the communal fabric.

This concept of valued contributions extends beyond financial giving to encompass the diverse talents, time, and energy that individuals bring to their communities. Just as the half-shekel symbolizes financial equivalence, the broader application of this principle recognizes the unique contributions each person can make, whether it be in the form of volunteer work, sharing knowledge, or offering moral support. In recognizing and valuing these varied forms of contribution, the community is enriched and strengthened in multiple ways.

In the wake of the harrowing events of October 7th, a profound and stirring example of the principles embodied in Parshat Shekalim and the psychological insights into the bystander effect has unfolded across Israel and the Jewish world. Amidst the devastation and heartbreak, a remarkable array of individual contributions has emerged, which has been a wellspring of strength for us all.

In this time of unparalleled challenges, each person has stepped forward, offering their “half shekel” — not in the form of silver, but through acts of kindness, solidarity, and support, tirelessly working to alleviate the pain and to address the multitude of challenges that have arisen. This collective endeavor, where no act of giving has been deemed too small and no offer of help too insignificant, reflects the very essence of communal resilience and unity. It is the anti-bystander effect phenomenon.

What Parshat Shekalim has taught us – and clearly, it is deeply embedded in our Jewish psyche – is that none of us are bystanders. And this is a principle that guides us, animates us, and ultimately helps us get through a crisis so that we get to see better times.

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