In his magnum opus, Ha’amek Davar, Rabbi
Naftali Tzvi Berlin, (also called
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, “the book of those who are upright”. In his own
unusual way, Netziv responds that this is due to the fact that the three
patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaacov, the main figures in this book, were
men of uncompromising straightforwardness, justice and mercy.
While there are many people who are
perhaps righteous and even pious, the “Avoth” were even greater: Their concern
for their fellow men, even those who were immoral idolaters, was almost
unlimited. Avraham challenged and even bargained with God not to destroy the
people of Sodom 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). Yitzhak 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 toward his son in law and had exploited him in ways which not even the
pious would be able to bear (Ibid. chapters 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 as this does not lead to disastrous consequences. This,
says Netziv, is because we have to realize that without such compassion mankind
will not survive.
When contemplating the terrible disaster
which struck China,
and some years ago South East Asia, and the number of
people killed and wounded as well as the millions of people left homeless, 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 God’s 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.
The State of Israel has gone out of its
way to help victims of the tsumani and earthquake catastrophes. Besides sending
rescue workers, doctors and nurses, money and food, it has asked its citizens
to help financially and to do anything in their power to help out. Israelis have
responded in unprecedented ways. In fact Israel’s
aid to tsunami victims is 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 Institutions are obligated to call on their
people to pray for all those who are
still missing, who have lost their homes
and material possessions as well as for
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, and calls for an increase in our moral
and religious obligations should be heard around the country and in Jewish
communities around the world. When Rabbi
Israel Meir Hacohen learned of the devastating earthquake that rocked Japan
in September 1923, killing many thousands of people, he took upon himself a
private fast day and called on others likewise to engage in prayer and
Statements of sympathy should be published,
and above all large prayer gatherings should be organized throughout the land
and in communities worldwide. This is
the minimum obligation of the religious community.
After all, what happened was not just a
local event but a global disaster which will live on for many more years. 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 emunah,
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 parts of the world community have shown unprecedented
concern for the well being of the victims is even more reason that world Jewry
and even more so religious Jewry, should stand up. That this has not yet
(fully) happened is disappointing and we call on all those in power to turn the
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 notwithstanding the attitudes of the people
who are in need of our help. Just as Avraham
could have turned his back on the upcoming disaster in Sodom
but did not do so, so religious Jewry should demonstrate its religious duty to
help and show compassion in every way possible. To do anything else is contrary
to Jewish authentic teachings.
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. While there are moral and
religious values which are worth fighting for, we often focus on our physical
pleasures, our need for honor and often extreme comfort, our hates and loves,
that are not worth the time and energy that we spend on them. In our
vulnerability, we mature and become aware of what is important and what is not.
To make ourselves and others aware of this is also our task as “a father to the
Instead of trying to discover textual
hints for these disasters in biblical or kabbalistic texts, (which mostly is
fanciful speculation and wishful thinking), religious Jewry should act with
great responsibility and show that we have not forgotten their duty toward all
of mankind. This would increase respect for the Jewish Tradition throughout the
world, and no greater sanctification of God’s name could be achieved.
We have not yet fully understood our
responsibility in this matter. We are still too much stuck in the sandbank in
which we have maneuvered ourselves. This is not only true about hareidi
Orthodoxy but also about modern Orthodoxy. It is time that in an unprecedented
move, our religious leadership should lead the ship of the Torah and its moral
teachings into the center of the world community. What is needed is a moral
religious uproar which will shake mankind’s and our own indifference. It is the
task of the Jewish people and its religious leadership together to join with
others to make this happen. Only then
can we properly call ourselves the children of Avraham Avinu. May the Holy One blessed be He have mercy
on all victims and may He bring healing to all human suffering.