The tongue of the suckling infant cleaves to its palate for thirst; young children beg for bread, no one extends it to them. Those who once feasted extravagantly lie destitute in the streets; those who were brought up in scarlet clothing wallow in garbage. . . . Their appearance has become blacker than soot, they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones, it became dry as wood. . . . Hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food when the daughter of my people was shattered. (Lamentations 4:4–5, 8–10)
Are these news reports from the siege of Aleppo? No! This excerpt comes from Lamentations and describes the siege of Jerusalem…
In 586 B.C.E., our people witnessed a tragedy that has repeated itself in present times in Syria. The Babylonians laid siege to us, but no one came to the rescue. No one extended their hands to us in compassion. We starved, our skins shriveled on our bones, our appearances became blacker than soot, and our children lay destitute in the streets. We remember the beginning of that terrible time on this day for today is the tenth of Tevet: Tzom Tevet.
On this tenth of Tevet, Aleppo, now reduced to rubble, witnesses a United Nations more heavily invested in resolutions pitted against Israel (over twenty in the past year alone) than in support of the victims of violence next door to us in war-torn Syria (only one in the past year). Meanwhile, we have all witnessed the massacres, and violence spiral out of control in Syria…
Just like in Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago, children are starving, the hands of compassion have been retracted, desperation is widespread, and the city is in rubble. What is happening north of us today in Aleppo is reminiscent of the beginning of the end, just like the tenth of Tevet was for Jerusalem.
What does our tradition teach us about this?
: לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה
(“You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord”; Leviticus 19:16). We have a Jewish and a human responsibility in Syria. Rashbam’s commentary on this verse notes,
לא תעמוד מנגד, אלא ניתן להצילו בנפשו של רודף.
(“Do not stand by idly but go to his [your fellow man’s] assistance”). Rashbam’s commentary offers useful insight into Aleppo.
We must not stand idly by and watch our neighbors killed. Israel has already begun to increase the numbers being brought here for medical treatments. Elsewhere, Jewish voices calling for action need our support.
Last month, a Canadian-based group of Holocaust survivors told a crowd in Toronto that the international community must act and indict those responsible for mass deaths in Syria. In an interview, Howard Chandler, the organization’s representative, called on the international community to intervene in both Aleppo and Syria before it is too late.
Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies and the person who brought the survivors’ group together, remarked, “If we don’t speak out, and speak out forcefully, against these atrocities I’m concerned it’s going to become normalized.”
Jewish ideals call upon the international community to step up and save whatever is left of Syrian civilization. Indicting parties for war crimes and defending civilians from slaughter will come at diplomatic and even possible human costs. But the cost of doing nothing as people are slaughtered and the region spirals out of our control is a far greater weight on our souls.
Let us remember the beginning of the end for our people in 586 B.C.E. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour” (Psalms 137:5-6).
Eli Wiesel, of blessed memory, once wrote, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Wiesel was right. We cannot stand idle, ‘תַעֲמֹד לֹא” as Syria continues to be dismembered. Will we allow this to be the beginning of the end? Or will we not forget Jerusalem?