By Ruth Messinger*
The commandment most repeated in the Torah is to care for the other and the stranger. What exactly does this mean today when we know so much about the state of the world and how many are in need? It can feel overwhelming.
It is understandable when people say their obligation is to care for themselves and their families, and, perhaps, to respond to one additional problem in their own community. They opt to leave other problems, especially those at a distance, to “someone else.” It is understandable, but not in accord with the teachings of our faith, the words of our sages, the roles our Biblical ancestors played, or with history.
We are reminded that we were once strangers, that at various points in our history we were the other, that we needed people to come to our aid, so it is our obligation to do this now, for others. We think, most dramatically, of the people who stepped forward during the Holocaust and saved Jews …and of the many who might have, but did not, and what the consequences were. And then it seems reasonable to recognize that we must act.
We are told in text that every person is equally made in the image of God and equally deserving of help. We are taught: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a)
And our modern writers have recognized that we live in an ever more connected world, making our choices harder. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recognizes that television and the internet have “effectively abolished distance,” but argues that we still have a responsibility to act for the other. Rabbi Joachim Prins observed, powerfully, that “(N)eighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s [sic] dignity and integrity” wherever he or she may be.
It is not only from text that we derive this global perspective, but also from Jewish history. Abraham challenges God to protect the non-Jewish innocents of Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph uses his wisdom and insight to prevent famine from devastating all of Egypt, and Esther risks her life to lobby the king on behalf of her people who are seen as the “other.” In each instance a Jewish leader takes responsibility for people under threat, whether of oppression, famine or ethnic cleansing, testifying by example to our obligation to act similarly today for people who are starving, who are victims of hate, who face incipient genocidal activity.
We are instructed to partner with God in shaping a world of justice and compassion, to reach beyond ourselves to those for whom we might make a difference, to be an or l’goyim – a light unto the nations.
Consider this additional text teaching:
Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one’s household and does not is punished for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b)
This ancient text makes it clear that any time we fail to act, for any persons, whatever their relationships to us, wherever they live, when we know that they are in need, we are to be held accountable for whatever goes wrong.
And, whether we are responding locally or globally, there is the question of what response we are asked to make. The rabbis debated whether study or action was called for and concluded:
“Study is greater because it leads to action.” (BT Kiddushin 40b)
So, it is not enough to learn that people are starving in East Africa or that climate change literally will drown some island nations. Once we know the facts, we need to act. Even though we alone cannot feed a nation or stop climate change, we need to act because there is always something we can do.
The impact of this insight is in some way reassuring, encouraging us not to get overwhelmed when we focus in on what is wrong in the world. Yes, the problem in its totality is daunting, and yes, it is true that no one of us can solve it alone. But we can make a difference, and our obligation is to do what we can, to intervene for one person, but also to speak out against what is wrong – in the hope that enough people will do this to save even more lives, to make a greater difference.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, there is “no time for neutrality.” It is incumbent on us to tackle problems head-on. When he stepped forward to advance civil rights and to oppose the Vietnam War he explained his decision: “(I)n a free society, where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible (“The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement,” 1972).
These arguments make the case for the work that Jews have done in the world in the last century in many places, at many times, and by various organizations: responding to the genocide in Darfur, the earthquake in Nepal, a ban on Muslim travelers, and, now, incipient famine in East Africa, a global immigrant and refugee crisis and, a looming genocide in Myanmar.
These crises continue. We who have faced famine, experienced genocide and been the quintessential refugee community must do what we can to help those in trouble today. We who know what happens when not enough others intervene cannot live in a world in which the deaths of others from famine or violence will be because people just did not care enough. We must transcend boundaries of difference and national borders, recognize the divine in each person and act.
So, we are called upon to act, to do what we can, both at home and abroad, to be that light unto the nations even – or perhaps, particularly – in hard times. We must pursue justice at home, in our own communities, in our own country, in Israel, and throughout the world.
Before millions starve in East Africa, land is stolen in Guatemala or new violence erupts in Myanmar, we, as Jews, motivated by text, by tradition, and by history, must heed the call to accept responsibility, to act, and to protest these transgressions. This is how we take up our role, fulfill our obligations and help to heal the world. This is what we do to create a world of greater equity and justice and to encourage others to join with us each day to work for the good of the entire globe.
Ruth Messinger is the Global Ambassador for American Jewish World Service, an international human rights and development organization that she ran from 1998-2016. She also does social justice work at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and at the Marlene Mayerson Jewish Community Center of Manhattan, and is overseeing the development of a social justice curriculum for the Melton program. She serves as a mentor for CEOs of several smaller progressive Jewish organizations.
* This essay is written with special thanks to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, CEO of the Union of Reform Judaism, with whom I previously co-authored a longer essay on the same topic.