By Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum
One of the most inspirational works authored by the late Sir Martin Gilbert, of blessed memory, is The Righteous. Published in 2002, it documents the work of those precious individuals, Christian, Muslim or of no faith at all who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
These were people who made the most remarkable choices of all, in the most difficult of circumstances. People who truly exercised their power to choose life over death, courage over fear and hope over despair.
Subsequent to the exodus from Egypt, there are two Sidrot in the Torah named after people who were themselves not members of the Jewish people. They are Jethro (Yitro), the father-in-law of Moses, and Balak, King of Moav, the protagonist of this week’s Sedra. Yet their reactions to the miraculous story of the Jewish people’s deliverance from Egypt and journey towards the Promised Land could not have been more different.
Balak sees the people approach his border and panics. ‘We must destroy them lest they consume us all!’ he exclaims. As a result, he hires the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish people. But Balaam fails spectacularly, leading to the disgrace and eventual downfall of them both.
Jethro, on the other hand, comes to greet the Jewish people. He values the contribution they can make in a diverse world, despite the fact that they are radically different to him and his own previously held worldview. He sees the ‘other’ – those different to him – not as a threat but as an opportunity and resolves to help them in any way he can.
Each of these individuals are outsiders to the Jewish story. Each has a completely free choice as to what their reaction will be to the events they have witnessed. But whereas Balak chooses to sow fear and hatred, Jethro sows love and friendship.
On the final page of The Righteous, Gilbert writes the following reflection: “The story of the Righteous is not only a story of the many successful individual acts of courage and rescue; it is also a pointer to what human beings are capable of doing – for the good – when the challenge is greatest and the dangers most pressing.”
Each of the nineteen thousand and more known stories must lead each of us to ask: “Could I have acted like this, in the circumstances; would
I have tried to, would I have wanted to?”
One can only hope that the answer would have been – and would still be, if the occasion arose – “Yes.’’
Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of the Hadley Wood United Synagogue