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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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Anonymous Monsey, Rockland county December 18, 2017

How to intervene when you experience a wrong. To witness this it leaves us shocked.
And disabled to intervene for a certain period. But now you've informed us of this scenario let's hope we'll be more prepared to intervene more readily.
I would like to take the father aside and tell him.This is urgent and You must get parental guidance look for courses on this .You just can't emotionally abuse your beautiful children like your doing.
I plead with you not to leave the situation as it is. Reply

Anonymous Nashville April 20, 2017

I liked the reply from Deborah from Kansas. Offer to pay for the meal or anything that interrupts the moment. I struggle with what to do because there is always a helpless party that needs defending but defending can cause reprocussions which seems to make things worse. Changing the dynamics seems to be the only thing I have found to work but it doesn't seem to do anything for future situations. I probably would have gotten up and made a bathroom break and on the way commented what beautiful nice children they have and keep walking. There are so many times I can't think of anything to interrupt the moment and I mull over it but never come up with a solution. I was excited to see this article but disappointed that there wasn't more examples of things to try. Reply

Anna Plummer Florida 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. Reply

Anonymous USA 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. Reply

Sharon Dodge Camano Island, Wa. USA 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. Reply

CallMeRuth San Pedro 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. Reply

Jo Randazzo July 8, 2014

Intervention 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. Reply

Anonymous Belgium 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. Reply

Lynda Arkansas 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. Reply

john smith FL July 8, 2014

Egos 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! Reply

Anonymous Vancouver, B.C. 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. Reply

David Houston 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! Reply

Deborah Kansas July 5, 2014

Restaurant Intervention Perhaps, something as simple as interrupting the heated situation and asking to pay for their meal, may have defused the volatile incident just long enough for tempers to cool. And, in doing so, perhaps preventing further abuse, later on. Reply

Anonymous Skillman, NJ via July 4, 2014

Turkish Bath People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. If you speak to someone and you're not effective in speaking to them, that means you have something to correct in your way of communicating. If the reaction you get is an irrational emotional response, you can assume that where you were speaking from is the sitra achra. If where you're speaking from is your Godly soul, it will elicit a response from their Godly soul. Or, as it is written in the Talmud, words spoken from the heart enter the heart. The results don't lie, and they reflect back on the speaker.

There's a story from the Friedecker Rebbe about the lesson to be learned from the Turkish bath. First we have to warm people up, then you elevate them, then they will ask us to beat them with the birch branches of reproach.

People need to be warmed up and elevated before they will be able to hear reproach.

The Alter Rebbe also discusses this in Tanya, but it is too long to summarize. Reply

Moshe Israel July 3, 2014

I always pray to Hashem to help me see why he's showing me such things! What am I to learn from this....i then pray for peace....and await the response from Hashem...It can takes days for the Answer. ...but it always teaches me something new. Barruk Hashem for creating each and every thing. Reply

Patricia B. Vancouver, B.C. July 3, 2014

Please, if I could have a moment When I took my Mother to a group having a group psycho-dynamic role playing exercise my Mother was taking part. It wasn't my decision for that, that she felt upset. The intervention left her feeling she couldn't face me. Or things she needed to face. I felt such guilt over her being shamed, that's in her perspective, and the truth is I brought on to my shoulders a fear of myself becoming embarrassed in a public setting. Growing up, I brought it on, there are tons of examples of me being publicly embarrassed...kind of a life script brought on by being a young person witnessing her having that done to her. These kids in the restaurant didn't want public shame brought to their Dad. Moreover, private conversations like leaving a napkin with a few kind words would ever more make those children grateful, and I perceive I could feel grateful for kind loving interventions I know I have had when with my Mother so many times growing up. Reply

Anonymous July 2, 2014

I felt pain within the first few sentences. I always feel pain for unfairness in societies and life in general. I worry if this is my weakness or my strength. God made me good, I think, so it should be a strength. Children can be difficult, and the details of their argument were unknown, but what matters is not that they had a disagreement, rather in how it was being managed. We must step up somehow to be the changes we want to see in the world, for our sake but more for the children's sake.
I witness people of other cultures who really value remaining silent to crimes, figuring only to protect themselves. It takes a lot of guts and care to speak out in life. Reply

Anonymous July 2, 2014

You did everything right until you made it about yourself. “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.”

Is it about you or them? If you, then good job. If them, then why add that last sentence? Reply

Naomi Belize July 1, 2014

Show concern for the father Your comment, Rabbi Jacobson, "if the other person feels you really care about him [her], [s]he may be receptive to what you have to say," would seem to hold the key:

In such a difficult situation, another man could try in some way to convey to the father that you feel HIS pain and care about him as an individual experiencing difficulties. Clearly, any improvement in the father's life would almost certainly help the rest of the family as well.

It is too sensitive to first talk to him directly about his children. He already knows what he is doing is wrong. Perhaps the underlying issue has to do with failures, disappointments, pain or frustrations he is facing.

Perhaps one could try to see if he could get the father alone for a moment, and if not, subtly pass him a note expressing your concern for him and inviting him to be in contact if he would like a listening ear; or inviting him to an appropriate community event.

It might be a long shot, but it might open a door. Reply

zohan big sky country July 1, 2014

After thinking about it, I would have went over to the table and offered to pay for the family's meal and dessert if they would like, no limit. I would have told the father that it was great to see a father providing for his family and taking them out to eat and spending time with them because time passes so quickly. And just to make it so that we weren't strangers anymore I would introduce myself. With the father's permission I would introduce myself to the rest of the family and give a compliment to each, especially the children. In hopes that the act of kindness would help recenter the family on what is most important. And if the family was dysfunctional beyond a simple act of kindness, that maybe that one act could impact the children that there was still kindness and hope in the world. Reply

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