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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 year old, and suddenly gave him a resounding slap on his face. I tried ignoring the scene and looked 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. 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.

Can I make a move simply based on my instincts?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 few mere 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 warning 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, and possibly even exacerbate, the problem, 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 after stating a key principle, based on the Torah's universal values and its extraordinarily sensitive approach to dealing with the human condition, epitomized by Abraham.

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

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 drunk, 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 Soteh 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 lays 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.

I stated that when they have a free minute I would like to ask them somethingWith that in mind, I approached the two people arguing, and asked them permission to say something. Startled, 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 long-time 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 diffused 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.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
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Discussion (42)
January 8, 2014
Halakhic Understanding
There should have been two kosher witnesses there with you. Secondly, you should have consulted with the father concerning the matter while the two witnesses were present during the time of its occurrence by putting it in the form of a question. In this case, "Should we not emulate Hashem, blessed be he, by being slow to anger?". If, despite this, his anger is not diminishing, then you are not culpable, for you warned him of the matter the one time you are required to do so. Halakhally, if you witness a criminal act and fail to protest, then you are an accomplice in the act. The two kosher witnesses are so that you may protest without being accused of being a false witness, for a single witness may not testify against any man, woman, or child; however, two or more witnesses may testify against him.
Caleb Roberts
October 15, 2013
I remember a woman taking care of me while my uncle and hes father in law beat my mother when I was six. I can't stress enough how important it is to see to the children. She held me and comforted me in the midst of one of the darkest moments of my life. That act saved my life and I hold it like a treasure inside of me. I don't know who the woman was and I never saw that woman again but she is and will allways be one of the most important persons in my life.
July 25, 2012
However, it is always in order to compliment.
Parent(s) are angry at a child, you compliment the child to the parents in front of the child. Then, if the parent(s) complain, you speak to the feelings (I know it is frustrating, but you are doing such a great job with him/her).
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
July 21, 2012
The Rabbi's dilemma is understandable. Seeing such an incident provokes us into either of the two action: to discountenance it or to react emotionally. From the responses given by commentators, it appears the reaction would result in a negative situation being created. Reporting to the authorities has never yielded good results because the authorities themselves are pseudos that pretend to have knowledge on how to deal with a crisis of emotion. Being present at the scene, the best judge of the situation is yourself. It should always be remembered that, if a public display is made of anger, then the situation is not as bad as it seems. Usually a bad quality is bottled up by a bad and emotionally disturbed person, only to vent that emotion in a violent manner in private. The Rabbi chose the right action - to be non-interfering in a benign situation. Misjudging a situation could have led to unnecessary embarrassment for all parties.
Nelson D'Silva
Toronto, Canada
June 2, 2012
The dysfunctional family
I recall with greater pain the times I failed to act on behalf of the helpless rather than those times I acted badly. I met a man who was dying of cancer. He had buried toxic chemicals at the command of his boss in the 1970;s. He desperately gave me his number and asked me to talk to him more. I could nto be bothered. The groundwater of an entire city was poisoned because I failed to care. A friend of mine recounts that she was driving on a remote road behind a large car. She saw a person's fingers poke through the truck lock. The person was clearly trying to signal her. She wrote down the license but was afraid and did nothing. Her small children were in the back seat and it was late at night and the road was lonely. There were no cell phones then. Her own life was so oppressive that she never reported it, lost the license number. The following week she heard the news of a woman being murdered and left in that area. I always intervene now. The onus of NOT doing so is simply too great.
Citrus Heights, CA
June 2, 2012
No matter who you are, if you touch a child in any abusive manner (e.g. slapping) you need to be reprimanded.

If I saw the father do that, I would have stepped out, called the police, told them what I saw, and let them handle it.
Because him slapping the child IS against the law (child abuse).
I possibly would have even called child services, frustrated parent or not. That's no excuse.

I know that in my living complex are MANY negligent and/or abusive parents. And I've had to call child services on 2 families so far.
Needless to say, it scared the parents enough to stop, take a step back and re-think what they were doing.

Unfortunately, this is what needs to be done.
And how do I know what to do?
Because I used to be physically and sexually abused on and off by my father.
And when I turned 21, I voluntarily underwent years of psychological therapy so I - in turn - would not become an abuser to my children.
H-shem be praised, I am now a firm, but loving parent.
Lebanon, OH
May 24, 2012
Loving kindness
I spent a lot of years on negative vibes toward my parents, pondering all the time why would they not be the supportive and backing up as I imagined parents should be. All the time I had a con with them, I was wasting all this energy explaining how they should or not behave if they wished for me to remember them as true mentors and role models. This not really worked out, except me being mocked as disrespectful and ungrateful for criticising.
Not a long time ago, I figured I change the approach, as I saw was going nowhere with keeping the frustration from the misunderstandings inside. So I started writing letters how much I respected my parents for being all I imagine consistent, reliable, inspiring parents should be. It worked out almost miraclously, as the reaction was a positive one and now I am able to always remind myself and my parents what a great education and raising I'd recieved.. And that's how it was.. ;)
Berlin, Berlin
April 19, 2012
Unfair Reporting
More than thirty years ago, I was caught up in a nightmare. Totally unfounded complaints against my parenting were made against me. It was a nightmare that only ended when a pediatric allergist who knew my husband was kind enough to examine my children and write a letter to the authorities stating that they were healthy and fine and there was no basis for those complaints. Those children of thirty years ago are now happy successful adults. I'm relating this narrative to show that maybe there is another side to the story and it could be unfair to jump to conclusions about the parents. Of course, where children are in danger of being physically mistreated or starved, by law the authorities must be contacted right away and all appropriate measures taken to protect the children from getting hurt.
Far Rockaway, NY
March 29, 2012
To act or not to act...there's the rub
Yes, do something, for goodness sake. I remember during a large social gathering some men were taking advantage of drunks by beating them up. A huge man stopped two of them and demanded to know why they were beating innocent people up. He had a hold of them and was requiring the truth. "I want to know why you are doing this." He was cross-examing them and his sheer physical enormity imposed his will on them, and they had to answer. I watched as he persisted with both of them, and gradually the REAL truth came out...abuse they had suffered themselves...what an amazing scene to witness. O for more of such angels! But alas, they are few and far between. Others manage to impose their authority by sheer force of character and manage to stun offenders into self-searching, but sadly these heroes, too, are rare. Our own boldness at these times, I am sure, makes Heaven rejoice, and it is the real intent of our heart at these trying times which makes the difference. Be bold!
Paul Westerink
Coolgardie, Australia
February 7, 2012
This is a very common occurrence, sadly.
Yes, as a former teacher, I know we MUST do or say something. What works for me is to address the bullying parent and say something to the effect of, "What sweet children you have. So cute! They look just like you, that is so adorable! It's hard, sometimes, isn't it? I had two sons of my own. Don't you sometimes just get tired?" Or some such discourse. It works totally. When I walk away, I look back and the parent(s) are totally acting nicer. There were only two times it didn't work. The first time, the parent was acting drunk or out of control, kicking his child. I reported it to the store and suggested they call the police. Now. Hmm. They didn't. So, the next time I did see something like that, I went right up to the parent doing the hitting/kicking and said, "Excuse me. That is child abuse. (Not your business) I don't care. It's against the law and I will call the police if you continue hurting your child.
Then, of course, look over your shoulder as you go to your car.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
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