Volume 30 Issue 31 22 Oct 2021 16 Heshvan 5782

From the Head of Jewish Life

Rabbi Daniel Siegel – Head of Jewish Life

Collateral damage or collaborative change

With ever-increasing “advances” in technological warfare, we are able to kill more people, more quickly than any other generation in history. At the same time, our ‘smart’ weaponry seeks to minimize collateral damage in maximising efficient destruction.

One of the earliest recorded discussions of collateral damage appears in this week’s parashah. Learning of the possible wholesale destruction of the city of Sedom, Avraham confronts God: “Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked?”.

When are we effecting indiscriminate punishment rather than demanding collective responsibility? Our Rabbinic tradition contains a remarkable maxim: “Woe to the wicked one and woe to his neighbor”.

Is the innocent/righteous one a partner in suffering because he cannot escape the influence of his wicked neighbour or is the enduring wickedness of the neighbour testimony to the lack of concern and influence of the ‘righteous’ one?

Significantly, Judaism does not trace its origins to Noach who, “righteous in his generation”, abandons the same to a fate of destruction while he and his family seeks to save themselves. Before Avraham, our people’s patriarch, steps into the breach to speak out against collateral destruction, we learn that he seeks to “teach justice and righteousness” to his children and to effect its practice among his neighbours.

‘Clean bombs’ may eliminate the fallout of a ‘dirty bomb’ but it too is an avoidable rather than necessary evil.

Sedom might still be saved if there remain ‘righteous’ individuals who can effect a change. The wicked and the righteous, our tradition teaches, are inextricably bound in both destruction and salvation.

A story

A prospective student approached the head of a Jewish academy wishing to learn about Judaism.
As part of his ‘entrance exam’, the teacher presented him with a question:
“If two men come down a chimney and one emerges dirty and the other clean, which has a wash?”.
 “The dirty one”, answers the young man.

 “Incorrect”, responds the teacher. “Obviously, the dirty one looks at the clean one and sees he is clean so he thinks ‘I must be clean’. The clean one looks at the dirty one and sees he is dirty and thinks ‘I must be dirty’. The clean one has a wash.

The young man goes away in dismay. 

The next day he returns requesting another opportunity. The teacher asks the question: 

“If two men come down a chimney and one emerges dirty and the other clean, which has a wash”?” 
“The clean one”, responds the young man. 
“Incorrect”, says the teacher. “Obviously the clean one looks at his hands, sees they are clean and he knows he is clean. The dirty one looks at his hands, sees they are dirty and knowing he is dirty he has a wash. 

Bewildered, the young man once again returns home. 

The following day, he returns to the academy and is granted a final opportunity to correctly answer the question posed to him:

“If two men come down a chimney and one emerges dirty and the other clean, which has a wash?” 

The young man wonders aloud: The dirty one, the clean one, the dirty one, the clean one? Finally, exasperated, he turns to the teacher and beseechingly asks: “Please, tell me which one has a wash?”.

 The teacher looks at the young man and asks: “Tell me, how can two men come down a chimney and one emerges dirty and the other clean?”