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Shemini 5782 - Confronting Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community

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This week we read one of the most painful stories in the entire Torah: The death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav & Avihu, and the response of Aharon & Moshe.


After Nadav & Avihu are killed for what the Torah refers to as bringing an ‘Eish Zara asher lo tziva osam’, a strange fire they were not commanded to bring, Moshe comes over to Aharon and tells him as follows:


(ג) ]וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן[ הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל הָעָם אֶכָּבֵד וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן:


This is what Hashem meant when He said, “through those that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and in front of the entire nation I will be honored”.  At which point the Torah tells us, Vayidom Aharon, Aharon was silent.



And the commentators are puzzled: What exactly is Moshe trying to say to Aharon, and what causes Aharon’s response, or lack of response, that he becomes silent?


Rav Zalman Sorotzkin in his sefer Oznayim L’Torah explains that Moshe is trying somehow to show Aharon that his sons did not die in vain.  Rather, there was a lesson that was being taught through their death. But Aharon, not surprisingly, had an extraordinarily difficult time accepting any explanation at all.  But not only that, he had a specific concern with what Moshe was telling him.


 “Bkrovai Ekadeish”, he believed, had a double meaning:  On the one hand, it was through those closest to Hashem, His Kohanim, Nadav & Avihu, that a lesson about the kedusha of the mishkan was being taught. But additionally, it was a lesson being taught TO krovai, to the REMAINING Kohanim, about how one would have to carry oneself when entering such a holy place. However, said Aharon, if that’s true, we know “Kohanim zrizim heim!”  Kohanim are very meticulous and careful.  Couldn’t HKBH have taught this incredibly important lesson by TELLING US THE INFORMATION!?  Did Nadav & Avihu have to DIE to teach this lesson?


At which point Moshe continues: “V’Al Pnei Kol Ha’am Ekaveid”, this was NOT only a lesson for the Kohanim.  This was a lesson for ALL OF AM YISRAEL for ALL GENERATIONS about what lines can NEVER be crossed.  Every child in yeshiva knows about how careful one has to be when entering the Beis HaMikdash, and certainly the Kodesh HaKodashim.  Why?  Because they know the story of Nadav & Avihu!


When Aharon heard that.  What was his response?  Vayidom Aharon.  He was silent.   Of course, not that he wasn’t in excruciating pain.  Not that he now had the ANSWER to what had happened.  But he could accept it at least a little bit.


The topic of Sexual Abuse, a different but also extraordinarily painful topic, has remained for many years in the realm of “Krovai”.  It is something we have left up to therapists, rabbonim, heads of school.   We place these issues in the hands of leadership with an expectation that they will do the right thing, and we SHOULD have that expectation. 


But also, part of the reason we leave this topic to others is because it’s a topic that makes us uncomfortable.  And it is uncomfortable.  But I believe the time has come for the conversation to no longer be left in the realm of “Krovai”, and instead become a conversation of “Al Pnei Kol Ha’Am Ekaveid”.  It needs to be something that ALL OF US talk about.


Yes, it is true that this topic is a delicate one and requires maturity and discretion.  But the stakes are too high for us not to speak about it openly and honestly.  So, I would like to share a few perspectives this morning:


First, if we want to be able to stand up for victims of Sexual Abuse, and to feel motivated to be part of the movement to PREVENT it, we must first begin to understand the DEVASTATING CONSEQENCES of abuse on the victim:


Sexual abuse – whether that be in childhood or adulthood - has been correlated with higher levels of depression, guilt, shame, eating disorders, anxiety, intimacy problems, and relationship problems.


Of course, every individual is different, and many victims are able to overcome the incredible pain of their past experiences and live meaningful and successful lives.  But many victims will deal with anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm for the rest of their lives.


It is not surprising, then, that the Torah itself equates sexual assault with murder.  As the pasuk states in Parshas Ki Teitzei:


כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָקוּם אִישׁ עַל רֵעֵהוּ וּרְצָחוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כֵּן הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה:

Just as someone will rise up and murder another person, so, too, is this act!


We don’t want to see this pain because it can be too much, but we MUST KNOW IT IS THERE.


Second, we must create an environment where victims feel comfortable coming forward and in which they know we support them. This means taking allegations seriously and displaying zero tolerance for sexual abuse.


This was one of the central values that directed the decision of the RCBC this week to end our relationship with two local restaurants.  We hoped that our actions would send a message to victims of abuse that we see you, we hear you, and we want your voice to be heard.


Chazal teach us “Hevu Mesunim B’Din,” one should be careful and measured in judgment.  Not every allegation is reflective of an absolute truth, and we should be mindful of that.  We all know of stories of individuals whose lives were destroyed – their relationships, their livelihood, and most importantly their reputation – by allegations that were unsubstantiated. But it is entirely possible to be careful and measured in our judgments and also take every single allegation seriously.


Nevertheless, we need to do a better job even within our own community of making it known that if someone has been a victim or is concerned that someone else is a victim, there are people to turn to. Anyone who has a concern should feel comfortable coming to speak to me and to Chani.  If you do, you will be heard and you will be taken seriously.


Of course, we continue to have wonderful organizations such as Project S.A.R.A.H, Shalom Task Force, and others that are there 24/7 for victims and their families, and we should encourage individuals to make use of these organizations.  


But we need to move away from this being an issue that is confronted only after-the-fact, once there are victims, and waiting for others to act.


We need to be vigilant as parents and community members.

-        If you have a child that meets with an adult in private – a therapist, a music teacher, a tutor.  Have a conversation with the professional and with your child about safeguards that can be put in place.  


-        We should be speaking with our children about how to protect oneself from predators.  That they should not be in a private room with any adult or older person without a window, a door open, etc. It’s especially important to have these conversations BEFORE they go to camp.  These are uncomfortable conversations, but they are CRITICAL.


-        There is a wonderful book by Rabbi Yaakov Horwitz called “Let’s Stay Safe” for younger children.  We have 50 copies outside in the galleria.  Feel free to take one on your way out of shul today.


Additionally, we must take responsibility for ourselves, as adults.  I never meet with a child or teenager without a parent’s knowledge and without an adult nearby.  I don’t meet with women privately without someone else in the building.  I have a window in my office door and am having a camera installed as well.


And this is something we should all be implementing in our daily lives:  we should avoid situations where we are alone with someone else’s child. We should avoid situations where we are alone with someone of the opposite gender who isn’t our spouse, even if it isn’t technically a violation of the halachos of yichud, and certainly if it is.  


We must all be beyond reproach for TWO reasons.  First, it’s smart.  It protects you from the possibility of an accusation. More importantly, though, it sets a standard.  If we are all more careful, it will shine a light on those who are not as careful.


Finally, we must be the eyes and ears looking out for each other and each other’s children.  If you see something that doesn’t look right, speak up.  You can speak with me or Michael Gutlove.  Of course, anyone who has a significant concern should go to the police.


The statistics bare out that most abuse is not committed by a stranger, but by someone the victim knows well, and many times a family member.  It is important that we have this awareness and be alert. I’m not arguing that we need to be hyper-vigilant and anxious, but we should be smartIf something doesn’t look right, then follow your instincts.  


It is not a coincidence that the pasuk regarding Lashon Hara contains within it two connected phrases:


“Lo Selech Rachil B’Amecha, V’Lo Saamod Al Dam Rei’echa”

Do not go as a tale-bearer, speaking lashon hara.  And, do not stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor is spilled.  


Yes, lashon hara is serious, but the Chafetz Chaim is BEYOND CLEAR that the halachos of lashon hara dictate that one MUST COME FORWARD to report a suspicion of abuse.  Of course, there is an appropriate way to do so, but no one should withhold information because of the concern for Lashon Hara. There is too long of a history of cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Orthodox Jewish Community, and that needs to end.


The Maharal is Parshas Va’era raises the question as to why the makos begin with Dam, blood.  He notes that this first plague is unique in that it totally changed the natural order of the world.  In the other plagues, were what one might call “extreme natural disasters”, but water turning to blood?!  It is totally abnormal and unnatural.


And he explains that as the Jewish people would begin the process of being redeemed from Egypt, there needed to be a moment of reckoning, as the sins of the Egyptians are brought to the surface. 


And, of course, one of the worst atrocities of the Egyptians was Pharaoh’s decree to drown all male children in the Nile. Desperate to maintain his own power, to prevent a savior of the Jewish People from being born, he took advantage of the powerless children, and had their blood covered up by the Nile River.


So, as the Makos begin, the very same Nile that was used to cover up the spilled blood of children, is turned to blood, as it will no longer hide the secrets of the Egyptian criminals.


Every so often, stories come to light, and the metaphorical Nile turns to blood, and yet somehow things continue as normal.  It is time for that to stop.  All will not change overnight, but it is time to begin the process of taking more proactive steps, both to deal with these crimes when they take place, chalila, as well as to ensure that they never occur in the first place.


And as we stand up as a community, we will be able to say that those who have suffered have not suffered in vain, but rather “Al Pnei kol ha’am ekaveid”.  Because as we continue to speak up together as a community, we will bring true honor to Hashem.  


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