This morning I’d like to share with you three stories; the names and details have been changed and you will quickly see why. I received an email from CHANA, Baltimore’s Jewish center for abuse prevention, informing me that February has been designated as abuse awareness month in our community. The email concluded with a request to speak about this complicated, sensitive, and all-important topic. And so I would like to do that today.
Story number one involves a young boy, who we’ll call Avi. Avi was a bit of trouble maker, he was always getting himself into conflicts with classmates and with teachers. One day he confided to an adult family friend that his father was touching him inappropriately. The family friend informed the school that Avi was attending, but the school, knowing this boy and his attraction to controversy and attention seeking behavior, they dismissed the allegations and did nothing about them. “The boy’s a liar.” “The boy’s a trouble-maker.” “It doesn’t involve us so we’re not getting involved.”
This patter continued for some time; Avi would again confide in this adult, the adult would follow up with the school, and the school would ignore it.
Finally, two years too late, the family friend called the police, who stepped in arrested Avi’s father, and put Avi in the care of a foster family. At this point, Avi had been sexually abused for years, scarred beyond belief, and would need intensive therapy to teach him to trust others and to not be ashamed of himself.
Someone once asked me if the Torah speaks about child abuse. It’s not explicit but it is very much implicit. To the point, I would argue that it is the Mitzvah mentioned the most times in the Torah.
“Do not oppress a convert, an orphan, or a widow.” Variations of that prohibition are mentioned 46 times! This week’s Parsha, which is all about social justice and how to build the fabric of a healthy society, begins and ends with this prohibition. This prohibition is not limited to converts, widows, or converts. It is a principal demanding of us to look out for those who are vulnerable. “G-d hears their cry,” the Torah tells us. And we are enjoined to emulate G-d and to listen ever so closely to the voice of the vulnerable and to the pleas of the powerless. There is no one more vulnerable in society than children. Children are powerless, children are attention-seeking. So yes, the Torah does speak of child abuse, 46 times, and it tells that you better listen to their cries.
I hope this goes without saying, but a story like Avi’s should have never ever taken place. When a child, regardless of how big of a trouble-maker or “liar” they may be, shares with us an allegation, we have an obligation, a legal and moral obligation to pick up the phone and tell the police. We have an obligation to help the child and his family and care for them. Does an allegation mean something is true? Not necessarily. But if someone cries, especially a child it’s our responsibility to hear their cry and help them. And let me emphasize, helping them, supporting them is not synonymous with passing judgment on the accused. No, A person is innocent until proven guilty. But we cannot ignore these children and their cries.
Is Child Protective Services perfect? Far from it. Do people get accused for things they did not do? That can happen. But I would hate to be the one who made that decision on my own and turned out to be dead wrong. A good society, a righteous society heeds the cry of the vulnerable, and children are most vulnerable of all.
Story #2 involves a different type of cry. There are audible cries and there are silent cries and this story is about a silent cry. Sarah was a quiet, well-liked sweet young teen. At one point, in her freshman year of high school, she started to withdraw from her friends and family. Her grades began slipping and her usual put togetherness was replaced with a complete disregard for hygiene.
Her friends were so caught up in their own lives that they stopped checking in with her, and just moved on. Tragically, but also tellingly, she didn’t have much of a relationship with her parents and although they saw many red flags they didn’t really know what to say, and so they said nothing. Sarah fell and fell and fell.
Sarah was being abused by a sibling, emotionally, and eventually sexually. She was crying, she was sobbing, but they were silent tears that no one bothered to listen for.
As a community, as good citizens, we have an obligation to make ourselves aware of these silent cries inasmuch as we do to the audible ones. Being attuned to the silent cries means being aware of family members, or friends who have a change in behavior and start acting differently. And it may not be abuse that’s going on. But when someone suddenly starts acting very different, when someone is behaving and speaking in a way that they never did before, it may be their way of crying out to you – help me!
But it’s more – Listening to those silent tears means that you are a person who your friends and family know they could turn to and share the darkest of secrets and you won’t judge them.
A colleague of mine once commented that he though there are no issues of abuse in his shul because no one ever spoke to him about it. And then one Shabbos he decided to talk about abuse. He spoke about it in a compassionate and understanding way; child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse. Following that Shabbos, people began approaching him and sharing their stories of abuse and he quickly realized that of course abuse exists everywhere. It’s a universal problem, and it exists in our community as well. If we want to save people from harm, which we all want to do, we need to transform ourselves into people who are so accepting, so loving that others can share anything with them.
And here I’m going to add something you’re not going to like. There’s a international organization called Stop It Now. It is a hotline for men with, let’s call it deviant attractions. It is set up for people who have not acted on their attractions, but are desperately in need of help controlling them.
I don’t envy their fundraiser. That’s a hard sell. But it’s also such a crucial service. The opening section of this week’s Parsha speaks of a thief who instead of throwing into jail, the Jewish courts give him responsibilities in the hope that this will help change the criminal. Judaism believes in rehabilitation, in trying to help even the sinner, and most certainly to help someone before they’ve ever committed a crime.
Are we accepting enough that if, just maybe, a friend of ours had issues that we would be justifiably disgusted by, would they feel comfortable turning to us? Would we be their destination?
Because those people are also crying silently. They are drowning in shame, in self-loathing, and they could be helped. If someone listens to their silent cries, whether that’s by checking in when we see warning signs or whether that’s being available and accepting, to let our friends and family know that we are there. No matter what. Helping them is also helping the victim. Those are silent cries we cannot ignore.
We’ve spoken about ignoring cries, we’ve spoken about silent cries, but far more important than those two is preventing those cries in the first place. As a community, as a Jewish community, strides have been made in dealing with abuse and abusers. Thank G-d, most schools would not ignore the claims of Avi and will do what they are mandated to do by law. Most schools and institutions would not ignore the signs of Sarah being a victim and would get her help. Recently, many of the Jewish schools participated in a community-wide program called Safety Kid, under the auspices of CHANA, that educates children about personal safety. If your child’s school did not participate, I urge you to speak to them and ask them what education and tools they are giving your children.
But in addition to the institutional changes, there is a basic change that needs to take place at home. Our children have to be showered with unqualified love and acceptance. Our children have to know that there is nothing they can do that would make them undeserving of our love. Our children have to know that they could turn to us and confide in us. Our children have to know that we are their rock. Because that is one of the best ways to prevent abuse.
Institutions can come up with the best practices and policies that will limit the possibility of abuse. But the best prevention starts at home. The safer a child feels, the stronger connection the child has with his or her parents, the more educated the child is as to what is acceptable and what is not, the safer your child will be.
Which leads me to the third story, a story about Michael. Michael was about as average as a 7th grader could be; he had some friends but not too many, he was a B student, nothing special.
Michael went to sleep away camp. A counselor at camp befriended him, gave him lots of attention, and they developed a close relationship. One night, the counselor tried to make sexual advances on Michael.
Michael felt very uncomfortable, and he had been taught to trust his intuition. And so he said, no. And that was it.
Then, Michael called his parents who he knew loved him and who he knew accepted him and who he knew would listen to him and believe him. He told them what happened and the counselor was quickly dismissed from the camp.
That’s my favorite story and that’s the story line we’re all shooting for.
G-d calls us a holy people in this week’s Parsha. As a holy people, it is incumbent upon us to listen when people cry, to not act as judge or jury, to simply follow the law, and call the police. As a holy nation it’s our duty to look out for friends and family, to hear their silent cry, both actively by being attuned to our surroundings, and passively, by being non-judgmental and accepting. And as a holy nation, it is incumbent upon us, more than anything else, to foster trust, love, and acceptance in our households so that there will be no more cries.