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You Must Not Remain Indifferent

Deuteronomy 22:1-3 contains the admirable commandment to return any lost ox, sheep, ass or garment that you come across and, if necessary, to go out of your way to do this. And then, at the end of Deuteronomy 22:3, the point is generalized by a command that reads, in the older and more literal translations: “Thou mayest not hide thyself” and in more recent translations: “You must not remain indifferent” or, “you must not withhold your help.” This is no doubt a perfect text on which to base a homily about our obligations to each other. But where do our obligations end? Should we give generously to every beggar we come across? If not, how should we act? There are halachic answers to these questions, of course, but the poets also have addressed the matter.

Charles Baudelaire was, characteristically, wandering through the streets of Paris in the middle of the 19th century when he, or his protagonist in this poem, who sounds just like Baudelaire, noticed an attractive young woman begging. Whether he hid himself or not remains unclear, but he certainly was not indifferent. In “To a Red-haired Beggar-girl,” Baudelaire has his protagonist address her and admit (in my translation, which follows the rhyme scheme and line lengths of the original) to an attraction:

Pale girl with ginger hair Whose torn dress, through its tear Gives glimpse of poverty And of beauty; For wretched poets like me Those freckles I can see On your young sickly arms Have got their charms.

He then notices how she carries herself:

You wear your roughly made Thick clogs like some arrayed Novella’s heroine Wears lizard skin.

And then he goes off into a long fantasy of what he wishes for her:

Instead of your too short Tatters, may robes of court In a splendid trail conceal Even your heel; Instead of socks with holes May a dagger made of gold Lure to your legs desires Of randy squires; May ribbons’ casual ties Unveil your breasts, those eyes Whose radiance would begin To raise our sin; And may you archly use Light blows and so refuse Undressings that displease Fingers that tease… Rhymesters would dedicate To you what they create And below the stairs they’d muse Upon your shoes;

And many a duke of France

Hoping for lays would look

To your cool nook!

Kisses would then outspread

The lilies in your bed

And royalty would plea

For your decree!

So much for the good-will fantasy, which Baudelaire indulges to the limit; if he had his way, this beggar-girl would be at the center of the French court. But then the poet comes down to earth, and faces the reality of the beggar-girl’s life and his own limitations:

Meanwhile you drag around And cadge what can be found By grabbing scraps at doors Of shabby stores; Your glance ogles and pleads For twenty-nine cent beads I can’t afford — it’s true — To give to you.

Great poets like Baudelaire have the virtue of acute psychological understanding; she wants a necklace, not meat and potatoes, and he can’t give her a necklace.

Go then; no gems will dress Your skinny nakedness, No perfume or pearls will come My lovely one.

Baudelaire hardly can be accused of indifference; this farewell may be brutally realistic, but it ends with a wistfulness that is almost love.

Another French poet from several centuries earlier, Eustache Deschamps (circa 1340-1404), makes clear (in a translation I did with Jeffrey Fiskin) that there’s a lot to be said, when thinking about social problems, for a sense of realism without any fantasy at all:

Among the mice, so runs the tale, a brilliant convocation sat against their enemy the cat to see if they could formulate some means by which they could prevail without getting lost in endless chat. One asked, in the course of the debate, “But who’s the one to bell the cat?” “That’s the hardest part,” said an old grey rat. [A] lady asked, and wisely, too, “Who’ll do this deed of derring-do?” Now each of them proceeds to secede: There wasn’t one who’d do the deed so in the end their plan fell through. They were fine words, and only that. “But who’s the one to bell the cat?”

In medieval ballades like this, the last stanza is an envoy, addressed to the monarch:

Prince, advice is often tossed about but we can comment, like the rat, on counsels that won’t be carried out: “But who’s the one to bell the cat?”

And this, I must say, is how I react to most worthy advice, including the advice at the end of Deuteronomy 22:3. Among the many problems in the world, no doubt there are a few that we can and will become involved with, but for the most part — the Sudan comes to mind — about the best we can do is indulge in imaginative sympathy, criticize those who offer counsels that can’t be carried out and applaud anyone who is actually dealing with the problem realistically.

David Curzon is a contributing editor to the Forward.


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