The World Was Upside Down: A Tale of Kindness
Parshat Shoftim is an important and relevant parsha, largely focusing on the the three pillars of leadership in the community, the king, the priests and the judges. This parsha makes clear the qualities that each type of leader should posses and emphasizes that leadership requires sacrifice, impeccable morality and deeds of unselfishness, all for the sake of the greater good. Being a king is less about glory and majesty and more about being a servant of the people.
Alas, it is difficult to read this parsha in the year 2023 when one only need to turn on the news to note examples of leadership gone bad. Torah is a book that highlights imperfections in all of us and in this parsha it sets the bar high for all leaders and helps us understand that to be a leader is less about the leader and more about the consequences that poor leadership brings.
The story below is one that I wrote years ago as a children's story. It is the story of my father and my uncle during the second world war, one of thousands of other stories during that terrible time. I present my father's story this week as an example of what can happen when leadership goes wrong; so very wrong. It is a tale of the not so distant past and perhaps a cautionary tale. At its heart, though, it is about the lights that kindness and bravery bring, even at times when leadership fails and indeed, when the world is upside down.
The World Was Upside Down: A Tale of Kindness
The world turned upside down.
It didn't happen overnight. The kindness dripped out, one drop at a time and then another and another until almost all of the kindness in the world spilled out, leaving barely a drop.
It was not safe in my town for a boy like me or for anyone likeme. It was time to run away to a safer place. There was no longer time to wait. Before I ran, my mother said to me, "My son, turn right and turn left, look up and down, and you will find help.
"Zai gezunt, mein zun. Be safe, my son."
It was hard to believe her in a world filled with such darkness but I had no choice. I ran as fast as a rabbit, dodging through fields and forests, trying to hide myself from others.
I ran to the edge of the town far away from where my family and others like us
lived. I ran until I thought I could run no more.
I was hungry and tired and thirsty and scared but I remembered my mother's
words, "Turn right, turn left, look up and down, and you will find help."
I crossed fields and a river, scurrying like a rabbit, hoping not to be seen.
At last I approached a house with a fence and a barn. Might I find shelter here?
With fear in my heart, I knocked on the door. A woman answered.
I said, "Please miss, help me. Hide me and help me escape to a better place."
The woman looked at me and said, "Yes, boy, I will help you. Come and I will
hide you in my barn. I will bring you food and drink. Keep very still."
The woman hid me in her hayloft. All night I rested between the yellowed stalks. I was as still as a mouse. I knew that this woman risked her life to hide me and her penalty would be death if I was discovered. I breathed softly and waited.
The next morning the woman entered the barn. She wasn't alone. I tried to be
brave but my knees trembled and my heart beat like the rushing tide during a
storm. Had she given me away? I heard the sounds of feet walking toward the hayloft and hushed whispers. I held my breath and waited.
With a rustle and a bustle and the sound of moving straw the woman was gone.
In the still of that moment I heard a muffled voice. "Is anyone there?"
It was the voice of my brother! He had also run away from our town and he
had found shelter at the same house! The kind woman had also helped him.
There was a drop of kindness left in this world.
The next day the kind woman sent us on our way. She gave us food to take on
our journey. We thanked her and then we began a trek into the forests. Our food lasted but a day and we were cold, wet and hungry. We were lost, but we did not lose hope. It felt like we wandered in the cold for forty years, but my brother and I both remembered our mother's words.
"Turn right, turn left, look up and down, and you will find help."
One day we happened upon a group of people like us, people who once had
worn the identifying star. At their head was a tall man. He approached us. He
knew of the danger to our people and he offered us a place with his fighters.
There was little food and there was still great cold and danger, but his great kindness
saved us. Now we were surrounded by others and this gave us comfort. We
fought along with the tall man and his band. We had found a corner of the world
where the last bit of kindness existed.
Slowly, so so slowly, the world changed. People like the tall man and the woman in the woods drizzled their kindness into the world like drops of golden honey and through their kindness and courage the world did not crumble.
Slowly the world filled, drop by drop.
One day, after many days and months, my brother and I were able to leave the woods behind. We emerged to a world broken to its core, in great need of healing. Over the years there were others who added drops of goodness to the world. Ordinary people like you and me who made a difference drop by drop and the world began to be rebuilt.
My brother and I will always be grateful to the woman with the hayloft and the tall man in the
forest who were very brave and showed us kindness. We will always remember our mother’s words to "Turn right, turn left, look up and down, and you will find help" and we
know that each of us must keep dripping kindness into the world.
Drop by drop.
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי, אֶל-הֶהָרִים, מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי
I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from where shall my help come? (Psalm 121)
"Whoever destroys a soul , it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.
There are not less than 36 righteous persons in the world who receive the Divine Presence."
-- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that your God יהוה is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that your God יהוה is giving you.
Other posts on Words Have Wings for Parshat Shoftim:
I love this one as it has some of your drawings !! Check it out.
This is one of my favorite posts....
What I listened to in order to prepare for this post:
Podcast: Parsha Perspectives for Today by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Matan One on One podcast: Episode 122 Parshat Shoftim
Matan One on One podcast: Episode 72-Parshat Shoftim: The Netziv
Into The Verse: Episode 20: How to Lead a Life Worth Living
Pardes From Jerusalem: Shoftim 5783: Navigating the Dynamics of Leadership
Pardes From Jerusalem: Shoftim: Judge, King, Priest, Prophet (I found this one to be the most thought provoking)