We had a class Shabbat program last night at the synagogue, followed by a dinner. All the classes participated in the service. Here is a short talk I gave to the children and their parents.
In Judaism, there are many blessings that are said over many different kinds of mitzvot. One might ask, why isn’t a blessing said before giving tzedakah? The simplest answer that comes in mind is because the poor person might die by the time a giver gets around to saying the blessing. In other words, when people are in need of dire help, one must act–and not pray!
As we read this week’s Torah portion, the idea of getting involved in the rescue of others is a recurring theme throughout much of Exodus. For those of us reading the beginning chapters of the book of Exodus, this anecdote has an important message–especially as we honor the memory of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. King–who perhaps more so than anyone else–inspired me to choose the rabbinate as my life vocation.
Judaism teaches us that we have a duty to assist those in need. Our response has ultimate consequences on those around us. We can choose to be part of a solution, or by not acting, we become part of the problem. As Jews we know this very well, for this is the way we have been treated by civilizations since the dawn of our history beginning in Egypt over 3000 years ago.
Yes, this point is the scarlet thread that permeates every chapter of the Exodus story. Last week, we read about the young prince of Egypt, who saw an Egyptian taskmaster whipping the Hebrew slaves; at that moment, Moses made a decision. He decided to get involved and so he killed the Egyptian assailant.
As the descendants of those who preserve the memory of the Exodus, how can we do anything less? Memory of the Exodus is never something that is passive; it is active. To preserve and continue the message of Exodus, we honor our tradition’s values by living an ethical life when it comes to helping others. The Torah beckons us to be liberators whenever it comes to the aid of those living on the ragged edge of life. Granted, the story of the Exodus deals with human oppression, but its spiritual and ethical message applies no less to the victims of a natural catastrophe as well. When you take a look at the world today, we witness the devastating earthquake that has killed over 50,000 people in Haiti a couple of days ago. For these poor people, the ten plagues came all at once.
As soon as Israel heard about the tragedy, it sent its best workers and scores of doctors to help provide relief, just like it has in other catastrophes. 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.”
Israel has always helped out whenever a catastrophe occurs—it does so because its ethics demands that it live by the principles of the Torah; indeed, one of the most important Hebrew words we find in the Bible is hineni- “here I am,” I am ready to help; I am ready to respond. In the face of so much death, our tradition also teaches us to “choose life,” whenever possible. Lastly, we also have an imperative never to stand by the blood of our fellow human beings that is being threatened by danger—whether human or natural evils like the one we are witnessing today. Saving one life is like saving an entire world.
As a people of the Exodus, we are commanded no less. We are all a part of the human family and God expects us to follow His example in rescuing innocents. According to philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Lévinas, the human face commands us to respond ethically without words; God’s voice can be heard from the survivors of the Haiti disaster, calling us for help and participation. As with every story of Divine redemption of the Bible, God requires human participants to do their part. For there to be an Exodus, God needs a Moses, an Aaron, and a Miriam. For the millions of people living in the earthquake ravaged country of Haiti, God needs us to help…
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