There is an elderly gentleman who lives not far from us. While not officially a member of our congregation, he comes to our synagogue every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and to say kaddish on his parents’ yahhrtzeits. I visit his home on an irregular basis and I’ve always found him an amusing conversationalist and pleasant company.

Just last week I met him in the local supermarket and was shocked in the drastic change in him since I’d seen him last. He’d lost a lot of weight and was clearly lacking in energy. When I came upon him he was halfway down an aisle, perched on the seat attached to his walker and trying to catch his breath. Of course I stopped to chat and express my concern about his obvious health issues.

Turns out that he’d had a heart attack a few months back and had been in and out of hospitals ever since with ongoing complications. Thankfully he was now on the mend, yet his doctors were warning that it would take him some time till he could expect to be back to anything like full health.

I felt awful. He’d been struggling for months, all on his own, and I’d done nothing for him. I tried to stammer out an apology, but he waved away my regrets. “It’s not your fault, Rabbi” he told me, “you didn’t know. I didn’t tell anyone other than my immediate family because I didn’t want to make a fuss.”

Obviously, now that I know I’ll be more proactive in the future and make a point of stopping by regularly with some chicken soup and good cheer. But I wonder, am I really blameless for having abandoned him in his time of need? True, I didn’t know, but I hadn’t exactly made much of an effort to keep tabs on him in the first place.

When the evil prophet Balaam was travelling to Moab to curse Israel at the behest of King Balak he was confronted by a fiery angel of G‑d blocking the path. Balaam’s donkey saw the threat and stopped in time, but at first Balaam remained oblivious and began to strike the animal, urging it on. G‑d’s messenger finally revealed himself to Balaam, and Balaam belatedly realized that his donkey had just saved his life.

Even before rebuking Balam for embarking on his evil mission, the angel reproached him for having hit his donkey out of frustration. Balaam accepted responsibility “I have sinned, for I did not know...”1

Rabbi Chaim of Sanz questioned why Balaam would say “I have sinned.” We could understand had he said “I was mistaken,” “I was ignorant,” or some such expression, but why is ignorance considered a sin? Rabbi Chaim explained that not knowing, or not taking the trouble to find out, was indeed a “sin” for a prophet and leader like Balaam.

Ignorance is no excuse for a rabbi or other public official. When someone is placed in a position of responsibility, he is expected to make it his business to discover all the needs of his constituents. I am this man’s local rabbi, and I should have more proactive about keeping tabs on him. Had I cared enough I would have found a way, and just because he wasn’t asking doesn’t excuse me from trying to help.

The challenge for us all is to care more and do more for those in need. Don’t just sit back waiting for people to bring their troubles to you; go out and make the needs of others your business. We are all responsible for each other and ignorance is never, ever an excuse.

As a personal request; If you do know someone who, for whatever reason, has fallen through the cracks and needs a helping hand; whether a caring visit, help finding a job or financial assistance, please, please let your rabbi know. The wider Jewish community offers a wealth of support services to those in need and sometimes all that people require is an introduction to those who want to help.