Joke: “What distinguishes ‘ignorance’ from ‘indifference’?”
Answer: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
To be clear, ignorance is not knowing, while indifference is not caring. Moreover, ignorance can be corrected, whereas indifference must be rejected.
As a sign above the windshield in my grade school bus proclaimed, “Stupid is forever. Ignorance can be fixed.” In contrast, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, unequivocally enjoins us to eschew all forms of apathy, declaring, “Lo Tuchal L’hitalem! You shall not be indifferent!” (Deut. 22:3)
Our tradition has long understood “indifference” to mean acting as if one does not see what’s going on; hiding from one’s own share of responsibility; and withholding evidence of concern, or even assistance, from those who suffer in one’s midst — and, perhaps, who suffer all the more intensely as a result of folks’ silence and absence.
How casually we have learned to feign ignorance by looking away. How practiced we are at evading our emotions and quieting
our conscience with whispered half-truths.
How clever the rationalizations we rely upon to excuse ourselves from true responsibility.
In the words of Shakespeare’s Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Act 3, Scene 2): “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Indifference to the experience of others, our rabbis taught, not only violates a divine command but also implicates such dissembling as part of an all-too-human problem.
Thirty years ago, the late former Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin delivered a powerful sermon in which he declared, “Insofar as our ignorance stems from our indifference, ours is not an intellectual but, is rather, a moral failing.” The Rev. Coffin’s linking “ignorance borne of indifference” to “moral failure” made a powerful impression on me, while his deft ability to gently chide his audience for our society’s collective failure to recognize and give credence to the pain of others, never left me.
As I listened, I recall feeling implicated by Coffin’s amplification of Ki Teitzei’s charge Lo Tuchal L’hitalem, for I wondered if I was an unwitting party to that collective indifference, and how might I correct for it. Now, older and wiser, I recognize Coffin’s charge to be, at once, a collective indictment, as well as a personal invitation — to each of us —
to rectify our ignorance and to remedy the indifference we exhibit to neighbors, friends and family, often without even realizing it.
Consider someone you care about who is lonely or hurting; have you reached out recently? Or have you rationalized away your failure to be there for a friend?
Consider a family member or cherished loved one who has recently suffered a life reversal or loss; have you called to say, “I love you” or simply to reaffirm you care? Or did you determine not to bother this person just now — or yourself, ever — for all kinds of reasons, any one of which, to the wounded, would fall on deaf ears?
To be human, it seems, is to be tempted to apathy. But Ki Teitzei clearly warns against our propensity to look away.
“Lo Tuchal L’hitalem,” we are commanded, “You Shall Not Be Indifferent!”
What, then, to do?
Be different. No joke. PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin Rabbinic Scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.