From NISHMA JOURNAL no.VIII

 

Indifference

Avrum Rosensweig

Passion: for life; for a pursuit; for someone. It implies more than an intensity, more than a desire. It describes an energy that grabs our full being and drives us almost beyond ourselves. It is our greatest strength and our greatest fear.

How does Torah look upon passion? Are we to develop this force? If yes, in what direction are we to harness it? In this article, Avrum Rosensweig perceives a unique Jewish perspective of the role of passion in the life of the Jew. While not presenting Halachic arguments on the requirement to cultivate this force and also not limiting its need (or use) to this one phase of life, Mr. Rosensweig identifies as part of his understanding of Jewishness: the passion to help others. He wonders, however, what has happened to this Jewish character trait in the prosperity of North America.

Some may find Mr. Rosensweig's words somewhat harsh. They are the result of pain, the pain he feels about the indifference he has encountered as a professional in our community. Many of us may feel that he is unfair, that his words do not apply; many may feel that his tone is disrespectful and, as we all sometimes do, will respond to form rather than content. Whether you agree or disagree, all that is asked for is that you listen to this sincere expression of one who cares, has brought his concern to action and sees caring as part of our Jewish essence.

Mr. Rosensweig is a Campaign Associate with United Jewish Appeal of Metropolitan Toronto.

ADMITTEDLY, I AM ONE WHO IS UNSURE OF the truth-component of Torah and Jewish philosophy. I do, however, have a sense, and take comfort in the whisperings of our past - that the soul of the Jew is to be awake with compassion for those struggling for peace and bread and collectively, as a people, we are to work towards the betterment of the world, tikun olam.

If that is indeed the case, it is sad and nauseating to recognize a reality which exists in much of the Jewish world today. That is the abhorrent condition of indifference - our indifference towards a fellow Jew who requires our tremendous wealth, our freedom to act and our ability to save lives, and indifference towards the world we are to be a "light unto". It is the reality of the unnatural Jewish attitude of elitism which we have adopted - the act of stepping over the body which sleeps in the street. And worse, it is the tragedy of convincing ourselves that we are doing our best. We have disgusted the soul of the world and we have degraded ourselves.

*****

My friend's name is Moses (not his real name) and he is an Ethiopian Jew who lives in a major Metropolitan city in North America. Moses is a wonderful man who hugs me when he sees me and who has lost most of the red running through the whites of his eyes since Operation Solomon and the aliyah of his family and former neighbours to Israel. Moses is a human being who bled when he was cut and who was cut because he was as a Jew.

For hours and hours, Moses and I sat together and told each other stories of our past. Through our discussions I learned that Ethiopians speak in very general and non-committal terms. It therefore took me months to piece together Moses's personal saga of his 17 day walk through the desert to reach the Sudan; his one-eye-open sleeps in the guerilla invested jungles of Ethiopia; his role in founding a U.N assisted school in a Sudanese refugee camp for Ethiopian refugee children; his capture by the army and subsequent torture; how he was informed on in Sudan because he was "Falasha" and how he escaped to preserve his life. And how he witnessed the murder of many of his friends by the regime of Haile Mengistu Miriam.

Moses was the "evil eye". The "ayin ha'ra". The "Zhid". The "Yudin". He was the Jew who suffered at the hands of the Romans and the Germans and the Spanish . He was the suffering Jew for whom we daven (pray) and the pained Jew we write poetry about and the persecuted Jew for whom we curse the "goy". Moses is the picture on our Federation's Pidyon Shivuyim (rescuing the captive) brochure.

Yet when Moses escaped to our freedom in North America as a refugee (not,however, through "Operation Moses" - the first Israeli rescue operation of Ethiopian Jews, in 1984) and left behind a country (his birthplace afterall) he may never see again, we asked him to wait on the porch of our million dollar home while we scrounged about for an old jacket thinking he was asking us to keep him physically warm. For months Moses appealed to his new community leaders, on behalf of the other Ethiopian Jews in his new city, to absorb them into the new culture and give them a chance to be part of the kehilla. Some individuals responded positively and accepted the job of welcoming the stranger into their midst. The community itself however (the city's Federation) said they did not have sufficient funds to outreach to the small group. The truth was the community did not have the money to establish a new community integration project. The question however, is why not?

How is it possible, in a time when Jews are so incredibly prosperous (a recent study in the Toronto Jewish community revealed that more than 20% of its members make six-figure incomes or better) and are leaders in all sectors of their host cities, a Jewish hero can walk into town, a man who is able to open his shirt and reveal scars, Jewish scars, and be ignored? How is it possible that our priorities in the area of chesed (goodness) have become so perverted that we have convinced ourselves that Tzedakah takes second stage to our two or three mortgages, cars and tri-yearly trips?

Moses is an Anatoly Scharansky in his courage. He is a Chana Szenesh and he is a Yehuda Maccabee. Moses is as much a page in our history of survival, as a tiny people, as was Theodore Herzl and is Menachem Begin. He is the Jewish strength we always speak of and the chutzpah of our survival even we are in awe of. And I think, if all of those great leaders were gathered around a table, they would surely invite Moses to join them and would celebrate his history with the enthusiasm of the ovation they gave the Sinai chapter.

Yet, we in our million dollar Federation offices and shuls don't ask Moses to sit at the head of our tables nor do we open our treasures to him allowing him the resources we have been loaned for that very purpose. We don't for the same reason that a major North American organization allowed one of its leaders, a saviour of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of orphans following the Holocaust, to die penniless. We don't - because we have become very fat and we have become very selfish.

We have convinced ourselves that since we are the owner of the company, everyone, no matter what their situation, can aspire to the same heights...and we forget we were refugees too. We say that as doctors and lawyers and dentists we are fulfilling our humanitarian duty to our people and to the world and tell ourselves that we are sacrificing at every filled tooth and every receipted gift to our Jewish Community Centre and local Opera. All this at salaries in the six figure bracket.

We have fallen into the seductive Western mode of thinking which allows us to be free and to have the luxury of proclaiming wonderful epitaphs of freedom and human rights; but we do not incorporate those lofty ideals into our everyday lives. We espouse the virtues of heroism yet ask the hero not to bother us at home. We are fat.

And the worst of it, the very worst of it all, is that our shuls and our Jewish organizations give awards and rewards and scholarships and accolades to their members and donors for being "true Jews", loyal to the Torah commandments of Pidyon Shivuyim and tithing our fields and helping the ass of our neighbour when it has fallen by the roadside. Probably we patted the back of the one who gave Moses the old jacket, with thanks for not making him wait too long. No doubt, someone declared that the Pidyon Shivuyim Award was in order.

We give out absurd leadership awards to people who know how to run a meeting - who

know the "process" - but show little concern for the motivation behind the meeting - Jewish and humanitarian values. I was told by one recipient of a leadership award that he refused to mention Soviet aliyah statistics at our many committee meetings because the agenda was full with other more "important" details such as program venues and decorations for the hall.

Colleges, some with Jewish sponsorship, are educating Social Workers in community work and are producing Jewish professionals who are fluent in committee dynamics and the art of marketing, yet who seldom grapple with and subsequently experience the pain of those on whose behalf they are working. Our Jewish institutions have become glossy advertising departments and our community workers are expected to be witty diplomats able to appease the client and sell the product.

*****

Some time ago I attended a simcha. The speakers spoke of adherence to Halacha. The Rabbis quoted scriptures and Midrashim and said they were sure that a Torah Derech, a Torah way, would continue to be followed by the celebrants. What is this Torah Derech they were referring to? What does it demand? None of the speakers mentioned that in Syria, 2 Jewish brothers who have been incarcerated for 3 1/2 years and recently were sentenced to 6 1/2 more years in jail, were at the time on a hunger strike because they wanted to die. Not one of these Jewish leaders even touched on the fact that one of the brother's family (a wife and 7 children) was also on a hunger strike because they preferred to die rather than continuing living in a barbaric Syrian regime. And not a word was mentioned about the historical aliyah of Jews from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, South Africa, Eastern Europe etc., and how many of these people were running from anti-semitism. Even as we bid people to further their Jewish commitment, the most important aspect of our very existence as Jews -loving our neighbour, and helping another human being in need - somehow, is lost in the shuffle. A simcha is a time of joy but as we learn from the breaking of the glass at the chupah, even at these times we are still to remember the sad realities of the world. Furthermore, if we are declaring our loyalty to Judaism, should we not state what this allegiance entails? Is it so difficult to remember the less fortunate Jew within this event of luxury?

Change is complex and takes time to internalize. But the change we as a people need to go through in order to be true to our history is less demanding than a complete metamorphosis of being. Our change must be a retracing of steps to the place where we began, when Abraham opened his tent on all four sides to not only Jews but non-Jews as well. We must not only act as an Abraham but become one. We don't have to become different, we have to become what we were.

We must begin again to be at the forefront of not only the computer chip industry but on the stairs of government buildings rallying for the rights of minority groups and against the atrocities perpetrated by cruel countries.

We must change the curriculum of our day schools to include compulsory volunteer work. Principals and teachers of our educational institutions must themselves be educated on the value of "rescue" , chesed, and the importance of experiencing the pain of those suffering. Our schools should have sessions with Holocaust survivors as well as the Moses, the disabled Jew, the battered wife, the former 'Messianic' Jew, the drug rehabilitated kid. It must start with our children and what better place than the school.

Furthermore it should be mandatory for all Jewish leaders to volunteer some of their time in such institutions as homes for the aged and group homes for the street kid. Jewish federations should set up committees chaired by and filled with newcomers to the community, who will use it as a tool for their own needs and outreach to others in similar circumstances. Jewish colleges must begin to teach courses on the roots of chesed and the characteristics of a true leader - one who rolls up his or her sleeves and is willing to enter the rat infested slums of some of the community's constituents.

Many modern day religious visionaries are convinced our society will again evolve into a battle of good versus evil. They speak of the approach of the Messianic era and our sinfulways which will encourage the coming of Mashiach.

I do not dispute the possibility of that battle ensuing for I am not certain. I do know however that as long as we sit back and believe in a Messianic era where all will be good eternally, expecting G-d to do all the work, I fear we will not do what needs to be done to lead up to that time. That is extending ourselves as human beings and as Jews in a compassionate way equipped with a mission for the betterment of the world, able to see our vision through to the end.

The Jewish people, on the whole, are not bad, they are fat. Until we begin to recognize that it is our very passion for life that has brought us to the table and allowed us to eat unnecessary multi-course meals, we will only become bigger and bigger until one day we might just burst. To be Jewish, we have no choice but to continue our passion for the lives of others.

 

Chabura Topics

 

1) Priorities - Mr. Rosensweig's words are strong and cannot be ignored. We may wonder how we are to incorporate his thoughts into our lives. Are we to ignore the needs of our families? Of course not. How, though, are we to define our needs? How much of what we consider needs are actually luxuries, especially when we compare our lives with the many unfortunate refugees that occupy this world? Even so, how much are we obligated to sacrifice within our lifestyle? How do we set priorities, balancing between our legitimate needs, and pleasures, and that of the other? The question can also be asked in the religious realm. Mr. Rosensweig argues powerfully for the centricity of the mitzvah of chesed, but what about the many demands of Torah on our time. How do we balance between all these demands? The Vilna Gaon refused to complete his study of the science of medicine lest he be called upon to practice which would take away from his time to study Torah. Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid declared, however, that one who had theopportunity to study medicine yet did not, should be compared a murderer (see Sha'arei Talmud Torah p. 294). Perhaps the answer is a personal one, but, if so, how do we know when we are honestly balancing priorities and when we are simply using one command as a way out of facing another responsibility. Perhaps the key is the passion, feeling the pull of commitment. Places to begin this investigation include: Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyim; Maaser Kesafim, edited by Cyril Domb; Rambam's Commentary to the Mishna, Makkot 3:16; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 25b; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia 62a.

 

2) The Jewish Role in the World - What is the Jewish obligation to the global community? To further investigate this issue see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht's "Crisis in Jewish Identity, Parts III and IV" in NISHMA, Fall 1989 and NISHMA VII. See also NISHMA Chabura Materials: What is a Jew?, Part 6.

NISHMA-Experience presents personal responses and reflections, emotional and intellectual, on the interaction between the individual, G-d, Torah and the world.

Suggested Chabura Topics follow each article, providing issues and questions intended to spark further intense Torah investigation and discussion in the NISHMA Chaburot.


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2002 NISHMA