What’s happening today? If we look at the world around us, we see a sorry picture of the human condition: News of war, terrorism, violence and bloodshed dominate the headlines. It is not easy to live in this world, whose symbolic birthday, Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate today. However, I do not want to address today’s big events, but the small things…as small as the drops of water that make up the oceans. It is not by chance that Judaism cares so much about the little details….
Sometimes it seems as if we live in a sick, indifferent world … one where we must pick up the droppings of our pets but can ignore the poor and the needy, those on the fringes of society; a world in which we drive faster cars but do not stop to let pedestrians cross the street; where we buy expensive clothing but fail to clothe the naked; where we throw away food while others go hungry. We wear headphones that render us deaf to the pleas of the others; we have parents who would rather plunk their children in front of the TV or give them video games than interact with them; we have a society fascinated with reality shows that transform spectators into Peeping Toms who prefer to devour stories of love and friendship rather than meaningfully live their own lives.
It is true! The poor and needy, and the lonely, are invisible. Unless we look, we neither see nor hear them.
What has happened to us?
Is indifference at the root of all these behaviors? Or is it the constant flow of bad news in the headlines? Have we become misanthropes? Have we delegated our ethical responsibilities to official institutions? Is the answer to be found in a better balance between the individual and the collective?
Hillel, in an extraordinary formula, gave us some elements toward an answer: “Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Prike Avot 1:14) In other words, it is essential to think of oneself first. Altruism always begins with a dose of selfishness. Remember the hassidic teaching that reminds us to carry two pieces of paper in our pockets. In one pocket, the paper should read “I am dust” and in the other “the world has been created for me.” One calls for humility, the other for optimism.
We human beings find ourselves in this permanent tension that is symbolized by the two pockets: the whole and the nothing, the infinitely big and the infinitely small. Awareness of one’s needs and desires is the starting point for walking toward our fellow. We must learn that having a good sense of self helps us to treat others well.
We know that God is one. And it is because of this unity that the world was created, says the Bible. The creative subject is the individual, despite the fact that the individual contains many different aspects. When God spoke to Abraham in the foundational commandment to our people, saying, “Lech lecha … Go! leave your father’s land,” God gave the command in the singular. He ordered Abraham to leave Ur, and its idolatry, and embrace a new way — monotheism. The prophet, the philosopher, the revolutionary who says “No!” to the status quo is the one who enters a metaphysical solitude that invites reflection. Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that what we share is a deep sense of solitude. Day after day, the question arises in our minds: is each of us alone in a desert of the I? Am I alone in this universe of which I am a part but from which I feel so alienated? In the face of this solitude, the book of Genesis tells us, “It is not good for man to be alone…” (Gen 2:18) Although Abraham’s departure from Ur put him in strange territory, he did not remain alone. He left Ur with his wife and surrounded himself with his family Sarah and his brother’s son Lot. “and made many souls, [JPS translation: And the persons they had acquired]” (Gen 12:5) , people who shared the same values … in other words, a community. Their spiritual world then opened to others. They did not seclude themselves in their own world. Acting ethically begins by building a sense of “who am I?” im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
But living an ethical life does not stop at the “I.” The individual needs the other, our fellow, to exist. Ethics needs the “you.” Ethics means to go beyond oneself. The commandment “Love your fellow” cannot be fulfilled within the “I.” Ethics means to think in the transcendental, that is, beyond oneself. Hillel continues, “u ke she ani leatsmi, ma ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Individualism has limits, boundaries. Judaism views the creation of human beings as putting remedy to Divine solitude. If God –kiveyachol, were it possible, experiences solitude, al achad kama ve kama, even the more so we, humans, experience it.
In the episode of Cain and Abel, Cain’s response to the question “Where is Abel your brother?” was, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”(Gen 4:9) One lesson from this story is that death is the consequence of indifference. It is because Cain thinks that he can live without Abel that he kills his brother. It is because I am indifferent to the fate of my fellow that I let him die. Remember the commandment from Leviticus (19:16): “Do not be indifferent to your fellow’s blood”, and even more, “If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, then you shall uphold him.” (Lev 25:35)
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains: “Rather then you must hold him. Do not let him fall any further to a state where it will be difficult to set him back up on his feet. As soon as his means fail hold him right there. Think of a donkey carrying a load. As long as the load is still on top of the donkey, a single person can steady it and keep it in position. Once it falls to the ground, even five people may have difficulty raising it back to its place.”
This Midrash points out the importance of helping another before the person’s situation becomes hopeless. Therefore, it demands that we acknowledge other people’s difficulties before it is too late. Attention to the other should be preventive, pro-active.
Coming to the other, taking care of others, reinforcing the idea of community does not mean that the individual should disappear or that differences should vanish for the sake of community. Denying differences is another expression of indifference toward the other. It is because the other is different from me, that the other is strange to me that I must care for the other and I am bound to acknowledge that another’s needs, hopes and desires are different from mine. If I impose my desires upon another, I am deaf to the person’s difference. I am only looking for an image of myself in the other. The other becomes hevel, vanity, and stops being other.
But if I pay heed and try to understand the difference, I am no longer indifferent. I am making room for the difference to have a voice. I am giving life to the other. Establishing social relationships involves making room for the other to exist. Cain, whose name means “possessive”, took all the room for himself. He did not allow room for his brother, Abel. If I leave, I abandon my ethical responsibilities, I alienate myself from the world. I die. This is the Abel Model.
The model that the Bible proposes is God’s. God created the human being after making room, tsimtsum, for humans, while remaining a constant presence and support for mankind. The God of Israel is not a distant god, indifferent to our fate but as Buber describes God, The God of the Community. We must strive to be like our ideal of the Divine, ready to pay heed. Shema Yisrael, the two most famous words in Judaism, invite us twice a day to pay attention. Hearing the difference does not mean to seek in the other what’s similar to ourselves, but instead to appreciate how we are different. The other is not a mirror, but an open window to the beyond. Paraphrasing Rabbi Elimelech of Lizsensk, in our families, in our schools, in our working places, how do we welcome the different one? The one who cannot keep up with our evaluations and statistics? The one who has dreams? In short, one, who being different in a normative world, cannot develop fully. Can we see and appreciate the fruits of what that person has to offer? Opening my hand toward the other means, first of all, taking care of my family, then those who live in town, and finally those from other towns. The community is the base from which the individual extends himself or herself beyond and, in its turn, the community extends itself beyond.
There are many groups, associations, communities and institutions whose goal is to take care of the other. But one can raise the question: Are institutions, governments, policies and circumstances to blame if today there are more people in need? Pointing our fingers to the anonymous organizations, are we not like Adam, who answered God’s accusation of eating the forbidden fruit, “the woman you put at my side”, is the responsible one? Are we not pointing fingers at others because they cannot defend themselves?
What has happened? We live in a society that talks a lot about freedom, solidarity, love, liberty, respect, and where, paradoxically, the number of people in need continues to grow. Perhaps with all this talk, we have forgotten to act. Shammai advises: “Emor meat ve aseh arbeh – Talk little. Do much.” Maybe we have lost trust in the ability of our communities and institutions to respond to people’s needs. Social work has become a profession, requiring a college degree, a situation that is positive on one hand; but on the other we have delegated our responsibilities of caring for our fellow human beings to the professionals. As we have mentioned several times in our committees or in private conversations, we tend to give money instead of giving ourselves. We cannot delegate what it means to be human to institutions. Should it be the government’s responsibility to remind us to find joy in the good news of our friends, to bury our dead, to give our children water to drink? Building a more compassionate and humane society should not come at the cost of dehumanizing the individual. Social institutions such as New Hope Ministries do great work, certainly; but they will never be able to replace the human warmth of individuals. Shaking hands, a smile, a phone call, an invitation to dinner or lunch are important ways of reaching out to others, and we should extend ourselves. But it seems that as institutional doors have opened, the doors of more individual homes have closed.
It is important to remember that as a community that cares about others, we must be vigilant and multiply our efforts to make out of our congregation a true kehilah in its original sense of assembly, putting together. We need to learn to be brave and open our doors, to reach out to others, to be present to hear the needs of each individual who needs help. Life is not a private affair. We learn to pray (and also to live!) in first person plural: We. We do a mitzvah in the name of all Israel carrying our two hats as individuals and as community. This is how all generations are present in each moment. Our own existence should be a symbol like no other of our hope to live for a reason higher than ourselves.
Hillel concludes, “ve im lo achashav ematai? If not now, when? These Days of Awe remind us of our own finitude. Do not lose the opportunity of being who you are for those around you, your friends and not-so-much friends. Let’s be present and open to others, helping them. Let’s stop being judgmental, and let’s learn to be open and love our differences– and move beyond indifference. Let’s make room for the individual in the community, the particular in the universal. Let us learn to be Jews aware of our humanity because we cannot be (good) Jews without being first (good) humans.