It happened again in Haiti.
An earthquake struck leaving horrible devastation and death in its wake. Current estimates project more than 70,000 victims. In its aftermath, one result is an unfortunate possibility, the other a verifiable certainty.
The first is a wry observation by Amos Oz following the recent earthquake in Iran: “It is crystal clear to me,” he wrote, “that if Arabs put down a draft resolution blaming Israel for the recent earthquake in Iran it would probably have a majority, the U.S. would veto it and Britain and France would abstain.”
Having served as the scapegoats of history, Jews are no longer amazed when they are blamed for almost any misfortune, including even natural disasters. But what often escapes recognition is the other event that invariably follows a tragedy on the scale of a tsunami or an earthquake, be it anywhere on earth: the certainty that the state of Israel will reach out to give aid and assistance, to stretch out its hands in humanitarian spirit whether this help is appreciated or even acknowledged.
Sure enough the Israeli newspapers reported the story: “Israel sends aid as Haiti braces for massive death toll in quake. The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Wednesday prepared a rescue team for departure to the disaster-stricken country. The rescue team includes elite army corps engineers and medical corps ready to deploy field hospital, the Israeli consulate in New York reported.”
It is a response that deserves some explanation. To play devil's advocate for a moment, why wouldn't it be reasonable for Israel not to become involved with the justification that its own myriad problems deserve priority? Why must Israel take on the problems of others when there are so many needs at home that require attention and funds? What is the proper moral and ethical imperative for the Jewish people in terms of its relationships with “the others,” the very same nations who so often have turned their backs on Jews and their concerns throughout the centuries?
The answer for us must come from the Torah. And it is in the Torah, as our commentators point out, that God makes clear the standards by which He judges our attempts to seek spiritual perfection.
Three Degrees of Care
The man who achieved greatness more than any other was Moses. It was he who was given a call at the burning bush to lead the Jews out of Egypt and to bring them to Sinai to receive God's message to mankind. What was it that God saw in him to make him worthy of this mission? There are only three short stories recorded in the Bible about Moses before we learn of his selection. They all share one powerful theme. In each of them, Moses did not sit by passively in the presence of evil. He did not justify inaction with the claim that it was none of his business. He intervened and did whatever he could because he intuitively understood that all men are responsible one for another.
The three stories are well known. In the first, Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew to death and he killed him before the Egyptian could murder his innocent victim. In the second story, Moses saw two Hebrews fighting with each other and he broke up the quarrel. In the third story, after he had fled to Midian, he was upset to see shepherds taking advantage of some Midianite maidens who had sought water for their flock and he again intervened to save the young girls from these bullies.
The defining characteristic of greatness: the willingness to intercede when witness to the difficulties faced by others.
These are the only three things the Torah sees fit to record about the life of the man divinely chosen for greatness. In Jewish law a threefold repetition assures constancy of character. Three times Moses demonstrated the one trait more than any other that God used as the defining characteristic of greatness and leadership -- the willingness to intercede when witness to the difficulties faced by others.
So much for a simple understanding of the story. On a far deeper level however it did not escape the attention of the rabbis that these three stories represented a sequence with a powerful theological message. In an ascending order of difficulty, the stories conveyed three levels of our understanding of the principle that we are all responsible one for another.
The first story called for a response when Moses witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. The victim was a fellow brother; the assailant a self-proclaimed enemy. It is the easiest kind of incident to elicit an active response. In modern terms it would be the equivalent of a Jew witnessing an anti-Semite, a Nazi or a member of Hamas about to slaughter a fellow Jew. Intervention is almost assured. Who could sit by and watch an innocent murdered by an avowed enemy of one's own people?
In the second story, the identity of the combatants changed. It was now Jew versus Jew. Anti-Semitism no longer played a role. The test for Moses was to see whether he would be equally incensed and moved to action if there was no outsider involved. And Moses was up to the task. He passed this test as well.
The most difficult one yet awaited him. He was now in a foreign land. Neither the offending bullies nor the harassed maidens had any relationship to him. He knew not the victims or the assailants. Simply put, what was happening before him had no personal connection to his life -- other than the fact that fellow human beings were in danger and he was in a position to help. The third and final test was the one that we are faced with every time a situation arises when it is not our family, our people or our nation is threatened but only other human beings with whom we share but one thing -- our common creation in the image of God.
It was because Moses passed this final test of his character that he became our greatest hero. It is with this characteristic that he must also serve as our ultimate role model.
I take great pride in our people whenever we respond to the challenges of anti-Semitism around the globe. I think it is admirable as well when Jews with different religious, political and communal views learn to live together in harmony and do not ignore attacks on each others' rights and privileges. But what thrills me more than anything else is when I learn that inevitably one of the very first nations to respond to the human needs of a disaster, such as an earthquake in Haiti, is the State of Israel. That is what reassures me that we have never lost that trait which made Moses so beloved to God -- and which enables us to continue to fulfill our mission of tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Here is contact information for some of the better known organizations involved in the relief effort.
American Red Cross National Headquarters
2025 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006
88 Hamilton Ave.
Stamford, CT USA 06902
American Jewish World Service
45 West 36th Street, 11th floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Orthodox Union - Haiti Earthquake Disaster Fund
11 Broadway, 14th Floor
New York, NY 10004
American Friends of Magen David Adom - MDA Emergency Disaster Fund
352 Seventh Avenue, Suite 400
New York, NY 10001
Click on the players below to watch Israeli efforts in Haiti: