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What If He Were Your Brother?

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Rav Mendel Weinbach once approached Rav Michel Twerski with a dilemma. As the Rosh Yeshiva of one of the premier “Baal Teshuva” Yeshivos in the world, Rav Weinbach was often asked to accept students who had been born Orthodox but were not flourishing in the Yeshiva world. He wondered if he should veer from his mission of teaching newcomers to Judaism in order to teach the equally important, but very different, “Kids at Risk”.

As a fly on the wall during this discussion, I was intrigued. How do individuals and yeshivos determine their priorities? What is the proper way to deal with issues of resources, responsibility, and philosophy? Did Rabbi Weinbach and his yeshiva have an obligation to get involved with one demographic at the expense of another? Was he allowed? Was it proper to lump newcomers to Judaism with those who appeared to be on the way out? 

Reb Michel responded with characteristic humility and matter-of-factness:

“There are so many issues involved”, he acknowledged, “and one could debate about these issues for days. But these questions are often personal. What are you going to do if it is you nephew or your neighbor or your friend’s child who needs help? Are you going to refuse them? How can you say no?”

Rav Weinbach’s emotion-laden question and Rav Michel’s non-answer bring to mind a wonderful woman that my parents hired many years ago to be our cleaning lady and babysitter. The woman spent many hours with us and made life easier for my mother. She taught us not to fill up on apple juice, not to talk to strangers, and not to write in phone books.  Although she was not Jewish, she loved to sing along with Megama and quoted the bible with regularity.

One day, our beloved babysitter asked my father if he would meet with her son. He was a nice boy, but he was about to go to prison for murder. I don’t have a clear recollection of the son, but I do remember feeling very bad for him. I knew that he had done something very bad, but all my mind could process was that the nice lady’s son was going to jail.

The incident happened when I was very young, but I think about it often. Murderers have mothers too. Having mothers doesn’t (necessarily) make them better people or less deserving of punishment, but it does put things into perspective.

Next time somebody asks you for help or does something wrong, don’t jump to the logical conclusion. Imagine for a moment that he is your son or your brother.
Imagine that you would do anything in the world for him and that you want only the best for him. Only after we formed that picture in our minds, may we begin to think logically and to do what is right.

I often tell my elementary school students that teaching is not a popularity contest. I don’t base my decisions on what will make my students happy. At the same time, I try to make every decision out of love and respect for the student. Yosef Hatzadik was justified in speaking harshly and callously to his brothers, but only because he burst into tears immediately afterward.

When the Chazon Ish advised that a student be expelled from Yeshiva he would follow up by arranging to study regularly with the boy. I have seen similar policies adopted by contemporary roshei yeshiva and I have seen it work. A student who is a bad influence knows that he needs to leave. He also knows whether he is being disciplined out of love or out contempt.

In Parshas Shemos, when Pharaoh was told that Hashem had commanded that he let the Jews go, he didn’t argue or debate. He just denied Hashem’s existence. “Mi Hashem? I never heard of him and I don’t care about him”.

Like Pharaoh, we often assuage our guilt by not thinking about the subject of our criticism and callousness. The worst thing that we can do to a person is to deny his or her existence.

Before we refuse to help somebody or choose to write them off, we need to acknowledge that they are real people. We need to imagine that they are our neighbor, our friend, and our brother. We need to approach all logical conclusions with reluctance and regret. Sometimes we need to act calloused, but we may not be unfeeling. Sometimes, when the situation demands it, we need to transcend logic and act out of love.

We need to act like brothers.

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