Thursday, Feb 29, 2024

The Broken Menorah Policy

 

Back in the era when Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of New York City, the term “Broken Window Policy” was heard early and often.

The theory, which I believe can be applied to many varied situations, was developed by sociologists James Wilson and George Kelling, drawing on earlier research by Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo. But I don’t think it takes genius to develop such a theory. Every good menahel of a yeshiva, a director of a summer camp, or anyone running an institution can tell you the policy.

Basically, the theory is very simple. No matter how rich or poor a neighborhood, one broken window soon leads to many more windows being broken. If a window in an apartment is broken and no one cares to fix it, that leads to having others soon broken as well.

To me, it’s a variation of the concept of aveirah goreres aveirah, where the spirit of indifference creates an atmosphere of negligence, abandon and disregard, if not total lawlessness. According to the brilliant scholars, “One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” Disorder increases levels of fear among citizens and a feeling of helplessness that leads them to withdraw from the stable community and adapt to the atmosphere of disregard.

Whether it is in a public playground or even in the pristine atmosphere of a yeshiva, messes beget more messes and disregard precipitates more neglect. Certain yeshivos have sloped bookcases in order to deter bochurim from leaving seforim on top of bookshelves. When there is seder in the bais medrash amongst the seforim, there is seder amongst the bochurim.

There is a famous idea said in the name of the Ponovezher Rov to explain why there is a specific mitzvah to erect signs directing the accidental murderers to the correct locations of the arei miklot to find refuge, while there is no commandment directing Yidden to erect signs to direct people on the proper path to Yerushalayim, a place where multitudes must ascend three times a year.

The Rov, in his inimitable fashion, explains that one who commits manslaughter, even if it is an accidental act of negligence that would not warrant a death sentence per se but requires one to flee to the ir miklot, carries an albatross of murder. If he must knock on someone’s door or ask a fellow in the street, “Which way to the ir miklot?” he creates an atmosphere in which people now know that there has been a murder in town. That news is not only depressing, but makes the act of murder, even an accidental one, something that is talked about in town. The knowledge of such a person in the streets leads to a spirit of moral decay. We don’t need people asking about the whereabouts of the cities of refuge. However, when people engage in conversation, asking villagers on the way, strangers in the street, or other travelers, “Which way to Yerushalayim?” it creates a buzz, an uplifting feeling of ascent toward the Bais Hamikdosh. We don’t want signs to tell us how to get to Yerushalayim. We want the inquiries! We want those questions! We want people talking about all those who asked about getting to Yerushalayim.

Pirsumei nisa, whether in every window in shtetlach like Lakewood or dotting the landscape in other suburban areas from Jackson to Teaneck to Cleveland and Pittsburgh, creates that spirit that evokes conversations that emulate the “Wow! So many people are celebrating the miracle.”

Unfortunately, every act of anti-Semitism that is played up in the media or that we see scrawled on the walls of a shul or school, chas veshalom, is not only a broken window, but a broken menorah.

Every article in the New York Times that deviously paints Yidden as backward, Israeli soldiers as indiscriminate, and Jewish educators as blinkered is a broken widow that entices others to add fuel to the fires of hatred and the flames of Hellenism.

Anti-Semitic statements, or what they call “dog whistles,” the type of covert communications of anti-Jewish, anti-observant feelings without actually explicitly stating them, create enough of a crack in the window for the next person, a less subtle individual, to smash the window in which a beautiful menorah had once shone.

Recently, at Hillcrest High School in Queens, a Jewish teacher had to lock herself in her office to protect herself from an anti-Semitic riot. It was not out of the blue. Months prior, nothing was done about anti-Semitic graffiti that was scribbled on bathroom walls and beyond. Swastikas and “Heil Hitler” texts were ignored.  Although it was immediately brought to the principal’s attention, he did nothing about it.

We are in a tough bind. We have to speak up, write letters, and not allow the slippery “slips of the tongue” to go unnoticed and unpunished. Recently, Agudas Yisroel instituted a letter-writing campaign to galvanize the sending of 100,000 letters to Congress to stand with Israel; to press for the release of all hostages; and to combat the recent, surging anti-Semitism on college campuses and across the country. Indeed, we must bring to light the public officials who slander the Jewish people to ensure that those words are not disregarded, but are answered and challenged vociferously. But it’s not enough. When the hands are the hands of Eisov, we know that we must battle with the kol Yaakov.

Although we must address every broken window of anti-Semitism, we cannot fool ourselves as if to think that the cure is only PR and letters. Our yelling and screaming cannot let us forgo the kol Yaakov of the botei knesses and botei medrash and the pirsumei nisah and Yahadus according to the Shulchan Aruch and our mesorah. And it is not a reason to be afraid. Even in our earliest history, priding ourselves openly in our verbal power was met with derision.

When Klal Yisroel told the king of Edom their history, relating how they “cried out” to Hashem, he was not impressed. Rashi tells us in Bamidbar that his response was caustic: “You pride yourselves on the ‘voice’ that your father bequeathed you as a blessing, saying, ‘And we cried unto Hashem and He heard our voice.’ I, consequently, will come out against you with the blessing that my father bestowed upon me when he said (Bereishis 27:40), ‘And by thy sword shalt thou live.’”

The Baal Haturim actually notes that this repartee with the words of Dovid Hamelech in Tehillim (120:7), “I am the personification of peace, but when I speak, they are for war.”

 

Rav Shneur Kotler, rosh yeshiva of Bais Medrash Govoah, told me in a vaad that in Lithuania, the Maskilim made a Purim shpiel in which a fellow played the part of the Chofetz Chaim. In the play, he was cast as the kohein gadol. The Jews were about to be attacked, and the Chofetz Chaim and the sages were charged to sift through the thousands of soldiers, asking them the questions at the end of Parshas Ki Savo: “Who is there who has built a new house and has not inaugurated it or who has planted a vineyard and has not redeemed it, or who has engaged a woman and has not yet taken her?” With each of the questions, more and more soldiers left.

Finally, with a handful of soldiers before him, the Chofetz Chaim asked the final question: “Who amongst you is fearful and has a weak heart form the sins in his hand?”

The remaining soldiers leave, and the mock-Chofetz Chaim is left on the stage alone, shaking a stick at the rumble of a tank that is approaching the Jewish enclave.

With the sound of the tank approaching and the frail tzaddik shaking a stick, the curtain closes to the laughter of the derisive audience.

Rav Shneur related that a bochur told the Chofetz Chaim about the play, and the holy tzaddik was not impressed. Basically, that’s what happens. But then he asked the young informer, “Did they show the next scene?”

“No,” said the bochur. “That’s how the play ended.”

“Aha!” said the Chofetz Chaim. “Had they showed the next scene, you would have seen what happened.”

The boy looked puzzled.

“In the end, we win the war!”

Indeed, they may laugh at our words. Indeed, when we speak, they want war. But the posuk does not tell us the outcome. That we know from Yitzchok. We win.

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