In his magnum opus, Haamek Davar, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, (also called the Netziv, 1817-93), the last leader of the illustrious yeshiva of Volozhin, Russia, asks why the first book of the Torah, Bereshith is also called: Sefer Hayashar (1), the book of those who are upright. In his own unusual way the Netziv responds that this is due to the fact that the three patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, the main figures in this book, were men of uncompromising straightforwardness. While there are many people who are perhaps righteous and even pious, the Avoth were greater than that: Their concern for their fellow men, even when they were immoral idolaters, was almost unlimited. Avraham challenged and even bargained with God not to destroy the people of Sedom who had fallen to the lowest possible level of moral behavior. Although by the law of God they were liable to lose their lives, still Avraham did not let up and kept pleading with God to save them. (Bereshith, chapters 18-19) Yitzchak showed tremendous patience with his depraved opponents who did everything to make his life miserable but in the end he did even more to appease them than what they had even asked for (Ibid chapter 26). Yaacov went out of his way not to hurt and even to please his father in law, Laban who had broken all the rules of decent behavior towards his son in law and had exploited him in ways, which not even the pious would be able to bear (Ibid, chapter 29-31). This says the Netziv is the great trademark of the patriarchs and as a result the book of Bereshith is also called Sefer Hayashar. True Judaism is not the kind of tradition which asks its followers to turn the other cheek, but it does demand concern for even the most foul among men as long it does not lead to disastrous consequences. This says the Netziv is because we have to realize that without such compassion mankind will not survive.
When contemplating the terrible disaster which struck South East Asia and the amount of people which were killed and wounded as well as the millions of people who lost their homes, one is reminded of the words of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin: The obligation of Jews to shower infinite mercy on the world. This is also borne out by the fact that God commands Avraham to be a father to all the nations (Ibid 17:4) which means nothing less than being a man who shows great compassion for Gods creations and to be the one to whom the nations can always turn for spiritual if not for physical help. And just like Avraham is asked to be a father to the nations so are all Jews.
It cannot be denied that the State of Israel has gone out of its way to help wherever it can to elevate the plight of those fallen victim to the tsumani catastrophe. Besides sending rescue workers, doctors and nurses, money and food, it has asked its private citizens to help financially and to do anything in their power to help out. Israelis, as real Jews, have responded and are still responding in unprecedented ways. In fact Israel’s aid works out at the highest per capita donation of any country in the world. This is even more remarkable taking into account what Israeli Jews have been through in the last years. Whatever our own tragedies we will not forget the world at large, although a good part of the world seems to forget us including those who now are in need of our help.
What is missing however is a massive and nationwide religious response. As a nation which is committed to the commandment to sanctify God’s name, the religious establishment, including the Chief Rabbinate, heads of Yeshivoth and other religious iinstitutions are obligated to call on their people to pray for all those who are still missing as well as the sick and the poor.
Synagogues should add special prayers to the daily service. Yeshivoth should organize special study sessions dedicated to all those who are suffering and their leaders should invoke feelings of deep compassion through their sermons and mussar (ethics) sessions. A public fast day should be seriously considered (2) and calls for an increase in our moral and religious obligations should be heard around the country. Statements of sympathy should be published and above all large prayer gatherings should be organized throughout the land. This is the minimum obligation of the religious community of the people of Israel.
After all what happened was not just a local event but a global disaster which will live on for many more years to come. In many ways it has already transformed our basic notions concerning our lives. For one, our conviction that we are secure in our homes and that nature is a reliable companion has been utterly shattered. There is no way we can be assured that we will still be alive in the next five minutes. A veil has been ripped away and we stand bare in front of ourselves. Ultimately our emuna, faith, has been challenged but also enhanced. From now on we are aware that we live by Divine mercy only. As such we are able to re-discover why many of us have decided to opt for a religious life. Religion, after all, is the art of living in wonder. It is a call to protest against taking things for granted.
The fact that the world community at large has shown its unprecedented concern for the well being of all the victims is even more reason that world Jewry and even more so those who stand for the highest values of the Jewish religious Tradition should stand up. That this has not yet (fully) happened is disappointing and we call on all those in power to turn the tide.
Religious Jewry cannot permit itself to make the slightest impression of indifference even when it concerns those who have little in common with us and are no lovers of Israel. Religious Jews should be at the forefront of humanitarian concern not withstanding the attitudes of the people who are in need of our help. Just as it would have been easy for Avraham to turn his back on the upcoming disaster in Sedom and even argue that it would be wrong to interfere in Gods plan concerning wicked people, so religious Jews could make the impression of making a similar mistake and argue that it was all the hand of God and consequently not for man to interfere. Just as Avraham never considered such an attitude as an option so religious Jewry should do everything in its power to show that it is its religious duty to help and show passion in every way possible. To do anything else is contrary to Jewish authentic teachings.
But besides all this, Jewish religious leaders should send a message to all of the people of Israel and not less to all of mankind that the time has come to realize that the world is a different place than we imagine it to be. There are moral and religious values which are worthwhile fighting for and there are many other concerns, such as our physical pleasures, our need for honor and often extreme comfort, our hates and loves, which occupy millions of us and which are not worth our while spending so much time and energy on. In our vulnerability we grow up and become aware of what is important and what is not. To make ourselves, and others, aware of this is also equally our task as a father to the nations.
Instead of trying to discover textual hints for this disaster in biblical or kabbalistic texts, (which for most of the time is fanciful speculation and wishful thinking), religious Jewry should act with great responsibility and show that they have not forgotten their duty to function as the father to the nations. This would in turn create great respect for the Jewish Tradition throughout the world and no greater sanctification of Gods name could be achieved.
May the Holy One blessed be He have mercy on all the victims and may He make an end to all human suffering.
1 See Avodah Zarah 25a
2. When Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen, the saintly Chafetz Chaim was informed on September 1, 1923, that a earthquake had hit the Kanto Plain in Japan and more than 100.000 people had died, he initiated a personal fast and called on to all his fellow Jews to repent.
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