“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tavo 5780

“Parsha and Purpose” – Ki Tavo 5780
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“Recognizing the Righteous and Stopping the Bullies: Shining a Light on Anonymity”

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“Recognizing the Righteous and Stopping the Bullies: Shining a Light on Anonymity”

What does our Torah have to say about the modern scourge of cyberbullying? How could its ancient words possibly be relevant to our digital age of social media?

The words of the Torah are, perhaps, ancient, but they are timely in every generation. We can always find new insights that are relevant to our modern lives. 

In this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, we read 

“ארור מכה רעהו בסתר”

“Cursed is the person who damages his friend in secret”

Commentaries have struggled with this verse. Why is the word ‘בסתר’, ‘in secret’, necessary? Isn’t it just as wrong to hurt someone in public?

Let’s look at this verse through the prism of today’s social media shaming culture, in which any individual can be damaged, defamed, even destroyed by nameless, faceless bullies. 

Whereas traditional bullying used to be face-to-face, today’s weapon of choice is the keyboard, with camouflage offered by a screen.

Because of this physical disconnect from their victims, studies show that cyberbullies exhibit less remorse than physical bullies. 

But the victims’ shame can be far greater, as with each ‘share’ and ‘like’ by people all over the world, their damage grows exponentially. Youth who endure cyberbullying can experience a decline in academic performance and difficulties at home, and they are also at an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide. 

With this in mind, let’s return to our verse and translate it through the lens of contemporary life: “Cursed is the person who uses the cloak of social media to destroy the identity, the humanity of another”. 

The word בסתר – in secret – takes on an entirely new, contemporary meaning. 

I’d like to add an additional perspective to this verse.  This week we sat shiva for yet another victim of terror: Rabbi Shai Ohayon; father of 4, beloved husband and son who dedicated his life to Torah study after serving in the IDF.  

Rabbi Ohayon was a man who lived ‘בסתר’, “in secret” — an anonymous man dedicated to performing good deeds about which we are only learning now, after his murder. 

On the one hand, we live in a time in which all one has to do is Google someone’s name to find out everything about them. 

But at the same time, we  know so little about who they really, truly are.

Perhaps in a socially-distanced, safe way, it is time for us to reach out and learn about the people around us, so that no one lives ‘בסתר’-  alone and in darkness. 

We need to break down digital barriers and re-establish human contact, bringing the cyberbullying phenomenon out of the shadows.  

We should find out which of our neighbors need help and companionship, especially during this pandemic when so many elderly people and individuals in quarantine are being found dead, alone in their homes. 

And we should allow ourselves to get to know the stories of the anonymous heroes like Rabbi Ohayon that live amongst us, so that we can be illuminated and inspired by them. 

Shabbat Shalom

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