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How to Intervene When You Witness a Wrong

How to Intervene When You Witness a Wrong


Sitting in a restaurant in New York City, I noticed a family eating at a table next to me. “How sweet,” I thought, “a nice couple taking out their three children on a beautiful night.” Until I noticed something very disturbing: The father was berating his young child, maybe 9–10 years old, and suddenly gave him a resounding slap on his face. I tried ignoring the scene and looking away, but the obvious tension around me made that very difficult, especially when the wife and husband began to argue. With every ensuing outburst, it became more and more obvious that this was not an anomaly; we were dealing with a dysfunctional family. It didn’t require any psychological training to see that these children were living in an abusive environment—with an angry father and a weak, helpless mother. The vibe was horrible. Can I make a move simply based on my instincts?I could feel the bitterness, rage and fear permeating the table near mine. I had no doubt that these innocent children were subject to an ongoing assault in their own home.

What to do? I simply could not tolerate sitting there just blithely biting into another piece of steak (or whatever delicacy was on my plate), indifferent to the pain being heaped upon these vulnerable children.

Should I approach the father and speak with him? He certainly would not welcome my gesture—a perfect stranger intervening in his personal business. But should that even matter? Should I sit by quietly while witnessing offensive behavior? Or perhaps my meddling will only provoke him further, taking it out on his family later? And after all, what can I say to an abusive man in a mere few minutes that will in any way help him and his children? Then again, is that a reason to just turn a blind eye fully cognizant of a crime being perpetrated? Should I be speaking to the wife and the children? Or alert authorities to the potential risk? Is that even ethical when I have no proof? After all, I did not know this family. I had no firsthand knowledge of what their home life was like. Can I make a move simply based on my instincts? On the other hand, perhaps I could prevent some damage being done?

You see—this is far from simple.

What would you do?

What would our forefather Abraham do?

The same question can be asked about every form of inappropriate behavior that we may witness. What is the right thing to do—to intervene or not?

You witness a coworker stealing money from your company. Do you ignore him, report him or confront him? You know that your neighbor is abusing his spouse. What action, if any, should you take?

The Torah lays out various guidelines as to our responsibility not to stand by silently and ignore the perpetration of a crime, as well as to warn others of potential danger. We also have an obligation to reprimand a sinful person, first privately and gently, and if that does not help, publicly. But applying these rules requires a case-by-case analysis. How, for instance, do these doctrines apply to the restaurant incident? If your intervention will not help solve the problem, and possibly even will exacerbate it, do you intervene? If you are not positive that a crime has been committed, can you pass judgment? After all, there is a due process that allows people the right of innocence until proven guilty. Can you act based on your “sense” that there is a serious problem?

In a previous article, I wrote about witnessing two people fighting in middle of synagogue services. I will share with you what I did in the synagogue, but first I will state a key principle, based on the Torah’s universal values and its extraordinarily sensitive approach to dealing with the human condition, epitomized by Abraham.

First and foremost, Abraham showed exceptional kindness to everyone he encountered. Whether they were friends or strangers, family or visitors, allies or foes. Abraham even prayed for the infidels of Sodom. The best way to inspire someone to improve his ways is by showing love

The first thing Abraham did was open his home—his tent was open on all four sides—welcoming guests from whatever geographical or ideological direction they came. The Talmud relates that after graciously feeding his guests, he would ask them kindly to bless G‑d for their meal. If they refused, the Midrash adds, he would tell them to pay for the food. “. . . Abraham caused the divine name to be uttered by the mouth of every passerby. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drank, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, ‘Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to G‑d. Thank, praise and bless Him.’” (Talmud, Sotah 10b)

The axiom, then, is that only through first loving your fellow human being can you bring that person to love G‑d. The best way to help inspire someone to improve his or her ways is by showing love to that person. Not as a gimmick or maneuver to warm that person up so that you can rebuke him, but simply, with genuine, sincere love—demonstrating that you really care.

What really lies at the heart of the resistance anyone has to hearing rebuke? Pride, fear of being judged, shame, exposure.

And conversely, what truly motivates us to try correcting a wrongful situation? Often it may come from arrogance, judgment, a sense of superiority and one-upmanship. It may also be that you enjoy putting others down. If your words of rebuke are condescending, rest assured that your words will not have an effect.

If, however, the other person feels that your words are coming from a heartfelt place, that you sincerely care about him, then he may be open to hearing what you have to say.

Too much criticism is showered on people with wrong or ill intentions. For some strange reason, humans often enjoy criticizing others—whether it comes from insecurity or to make them feel better about themselves, it’s just an ugly trait.

The single most important prerequisite before intervening in a travesty is your own selfless and loving attitude, and your genuine concern about the situation.

With that in mind, I approached the two people arguing, and asked them permission to say something. I stated that when they have a free minute, I would like to ask them somethingStartled, they both turned to me and asked what I wanted. Kindly, I stated that when they have a free minute, I would like to ask them something. I guess due to the surprise, being caught unaware, or out of simple courtesy, they stopped their argument and waited for me to speak. All I said was this: “From a distance it appeared that you are both longtime friends who are having a dispute. And I was wondering if I can be of any assistance in resolving the argument. The reason I ask is because I and a few others are trying to pray, and your spat is disturbing us.”

One of the two gentlemen aggressively replied: “What we are talking about is none of your business.” Even as he was saying the words I could see that the other man was a bit ashamed, sheepishly withdrawing from the conversation.

Though I don’t believe that I resolved their problem, I successfully defused it for that moment. And who knows? Maybe something positive would come of it . . .

In the restaurant, sadly, I admit to having done nothing. In retrospect, I feel that I should have said something to the father. But for some reason, at the time, I could not bring myself to do so. Not sure why. Now I think it was because I felt uncomfortable, and perhaps may have feared the backlash. Regretfully, had I perhaps cared a bit more, and felt more sensitive to the situation, I would have gotten over my own resistance, and simply called the father over to a side and said:

“You have such beautiful children. Such gentle souls. G‑d must have really loved you to bestow you with such a gift to cherish and protect. It hurts me, in the deepest possible way, to see that these children have provoked you to raise your voice to them.”

Even if the father had told me to mix out of his business, I would have persisted: “I know it may not be my business, but please hear what I am saying. Your children are just so, so delicate . . .”

Would that have helped? Who knows? But it definitely would not have hurt . . .

What would you have done?

Your comments and suggestions to this critical discussion are welcome and necessary. Please share your thoughts.

© The Meaningful Life Center. Rabbi Simon Jacobson is the author of the best-selling Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe (William Morrow, 1995), and the founder and director of the Meaningful Life Center.
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Discussion (63)
August 18, 2016
Our current society and family are the key.
I think it is good to gently say something, and to do it in front of the kids because the kids probably think this is normal behavior, maybe your words will stick with them, and give them an example of how to talk about things in a kind manner.
But if you want to help in a larger way, think and read about how our current society breeds these types of problems, and find other ways to help the larger problem.
For instance, families these days don't have the support system they used to have from older family members, like grandparents. Today's families are nuclear, not extended like in the old days. Elders live separately, so there's nobody to teach parents how to be parents, and things like child abuse goes unchecked. And, since a lot of people live so far away from other family members, and communities aren't strong anymore, there's no support system.
There's some good articles on the Internet about this, search for nuclear family extended family.
Anna Plummer
April 26, 2016
Maybe if one prays and asks Hashem for wisdom, then when/if he opens his mouth, the correct words will come out, to help the situation. And if he is destined for the backlash, as you put it, then maybe his prayer will help him recover. I agree, it is hard to assign a formula to this, so I won't even try.
January 15, 2016
I think the way you handled the two men in the Synagogue would have been appropiate in the resturant as well. People should'nt carry their dirty laundry in the public places and we as believers can share in love a better way. Obviously this father didn't have the example in his upbringing and possible was repeating how his father treated him. By intervining possibly the chain can be broken and a new person can emerge.
Sharon Dodge
Camano Island, Wa. USA
March 20, 2015
Provoking a child or teenager
I had a step father who provoked me daily - I would end up in tears running from the dinner table nightly. I'm an only child. My mother tried sticking up for me but my parents would end up fighting if she did. Dinner table chastisement, humiliation in front of neighbors and trash talking me behind my back to neighbors was normal for him. When I was 15, he slapped and hit me when my mother wasn't home. What ensued was me telling him I wanted to kill him. He opened his suit coat jacket and said "Here's my gun - go ahead and kill me." I ran out of the house as fast as I could to neighbors, where I was so hysterical I couldn't stop crying or speak. When my mom came home from the store, he lied to her convincingly and took her away on a weekend to Santa Barbara which is funny because he never wanted to go anywhere ever. Basically he was taking the stakes to a higher level - sort of double-dog-daring me to do something stupid so he could do what? Shoot me, of course.! This is truth.
San Pedro
July 8, 2014
If that man did that to his child in public, I cringe to think of what he does in private. If I witness someone being hurt physically, emotionally, mentally and/or spiritually, without hesitation I will intervene...and pray for the person/family/people involved.
Jo Randazzo
July 8, 2014
If you are dealing with an abuser they need therapists or treatment. If somebody has something like a narcissistic disorder he will not get the message like you mean it. They need professional help. And it's dangerous.
People think that they can judge or help but can make things worse with out a professional background and study psychiatric problems for years. It's dangerous. I was in an abusive relationship.
July 8, 2014
Should you intervene?
This situation is complicated. If the wife will not stand up to her husband, it could be that he is abusive to her as well. A man who strikes a child in public could do serious harm to the child or to the person who defends the child when no one is around. Could you have diffused the immediate situation--maybe. But if you intervened and he took offense, the child and the wife may have paid for it dearly later on. Maybe kind words would have made a difference, but true abusers need more than a kind word or two. They need professional help to deal with their anger issues.
July 8, 2014
So your ego when you are a witness to a right or a wrong would like to confront others egos and their personal interpretation of right and wrong? Is this correct?

I thought that there is no You but only His....but that is only My opinion of right and wrong.....

Don't worry, your local Government will let you know what's right and wrong when being a witness.....They are your current G-d/Master, regardless of "right and wrong" of any situation they You may "feel". Just ask them!
john smith
July 7, 2014
please, if I can take your time..
A book came into my hands about a woman's decision to report her father for his crime. I read the book learning how she was torn but after self-inquiry and instinct she did report him, though he was aged. I am a non-Jew and I wrote earlier a comment to say I didn't take the intervention people tried to give to my mother. and had I listened to school counselors, my Dad, our neighbors, a shrink, and friends who all tried to intervene with the relationship it could have turned out okay. Some people don't get it that interventions have to be made and huge steps taken to protect children. Thank G-d I know people do their duty.
Vancouver, B.C.
July 5, 2014
Be strong and courageous
G-d is very clear to not fear the unknown and " giants". Great people confront great problems. Who knows what blessings are born when we help others especially in the face of violence and hostility. Think about Joshua in the Bible!