People run past rubble of a damaged building in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Tuesday. The largest earthquake ever recorded in the area shook Haiti on Tuesday, toppling everything from simple shacks to the ornate National Palace and the headquarters of U.N. peacekeepers. Photo: AP Photo/Carel Pedre
When a calamity strikes the public we must cry out, examine our lives and correct our ways. To say that the calamity is merely a natural phenomenon and a chance occurrence is insensitive and cruel – Maimonides, Laws of Fasting 1:2-3
Amidst indescribable death and destruction, it may appear callous to focus on a positive side of the disastrous earthquake that ravaged Haiti this week.
Yet, it is hard to ignore the global outcry and enormous humanitarian effort to help this wretched and impoverished country – in very glaring contrast to how nations reacted to each other since the dawn of history.
There was a time when one country’s disaster was another’s celebration. Entire empires were built upon others ruins and misery. Ancient and medieval history is fraught with wars and aggression between nations. Every empire was out to conquer and humiliate its neighbor (or beyond), let alone not interested in helping another nation in need.
Today we see a radically different world. Instead of pillaging and exploiting the misfortune of others, we are witnessing an admirable outpouring of international aid – from nations and from individuals – to stricken Haiti. Obviously much more can and should be done to address the people in crisis. Yet, it is important to acknowledge every positive gesture of help.
Though hardly a consolation in face of the magnitude of today’s great tragedy, it is mildly comforting to witness nations having at least a semblance of awareness that we all are part of one human race, and we therefore share responsibility toward one another, something quite unprecedented in human history.
The mystics see our responsibility for each other in a cosmic way. All human beings – and for that matter, every fiber of existence – are part of one large organism; each an indispensable musical note in the Divine symphony. We are all integrally connected and interconnected. The loss and pain of one component affects us all. Indeed, all of time, space and spirit (man) are pieces of one seamless tapestry.
Yet, this integral web connection is hidden from our view. A great “shroud” conceals our interconnectivity and interdependence. The shroud is called the “grand tzimtzum” – a cosmic black hole that turns existence inside out, and allows us to think that we are alone and disconnected from everything else. It creates the narcissistic perception that the only thing that exists is you, in this moment and this space, with no inkling of your fundamental link with all other moments, spaces and people.
This “tzimtzum” is the startling root – both brilliant and horrific – of all human apathy, of every form of indifference and complacency that we are so capable of. Since we are all one cohesive organism, how is it possible, ask the mystical students of unity, that we should be able to go our way, sleep and otherwise disregard the suffering of our brethren?! Can one part of a body be at peace when another part is ailing?
Blindness is the answer. The great shroud masks our integral unity, and as a result we fell separate, to the point that we can actually harm each other, not recognizing that in doing so we harm ourselves as well.
Life’s great challenge – as great and even greater than the “tzimtzum” itself – is to wake up and be aware: To open the curtains and reveal the underlying unity through living an integrated life.
We cannot grasp the mystery of human suffering. Silence has always been the ultimate response to unfathomable tragedy. Not the silence of resignation. The silence of strength – of standing in overwhelmed awe of experiences that the human mind cannot contain. Not logic, not reason, not all of our other limited faculties can process the sheer senselessness of loss and grief.
Yet, men and women of deep faith always went a step further. (The story in these weeks Torah portions about the Egyptian exile and exodus is a case in point). They did not allow suffering to break them and their belief in the force of good. After silently acknowledging the mystery of pain, they forged ahead with fortitude and strength to become greater people and make the world a more beautiful place.
They understood that our integral unity infers another vital conclusion: Just as we are hurt when others are in pain, even thousands of miles away, we have the power to strengthen each other as well. In some strange way, our personal behavior in one corner of the globe has the power to repair ruptures in another part of the world.
So, on one hand we cry over the epic proportions of this tragedy. Lives have been lost, families shattered, millions traumatized. And above all, we have all been exposed to the sheer vulnerability of our lives on Earth.
Yet, at the same time, tragedy serves as a wake-up call and compels us to act and intensify our commitment to goodness – and do everything in our power to help the less fortunate.
And how we react to the disaster of others also has much to teach us. When you think about the discord between nations of old, it is not a small miracle that nations today are volunteering their assistance to pitiful Haiti.
When exactly did things change?
Charity can be traced back all the way to Biblical Abraham, who pioneered and epitomized chesed – a life dedicated to giving, kindness and compassion. Charity becomes a mainstay and a foundation in Biblical literature.
But when did collective charity begin? Which community or nation was the first to reach out and assist others?
I haven’t done enough research to conclude when this new humanitarian trend began. Perhaps one of you reading this can uncover the first incident in history of one nation offering help and expending resources to assist another. But it appears that this changed attitude began around two centuries ago. With the weakening of absolute religious authority and the emergence of the Enlightenment, new attitudes were adopted toward justice and social reform. The advent of collective respect for human rights in the 18th century also gave rise to humanitarian social action.
Some attribute the first international act of organized international compassion to the Red Cross, which was formed in 1863 to alleviate suffering resulting from war. Following that came the birth of international humanitarian law with Hague and Geneva Conventions, international treaties defining acceptable practices while engaged in war and armed conflict.
[Interesting to note, an almost unknown but fascinating fact: Several millennia before modern international humanitarian laws were adopted, the Torah – many years ahead of its time – outlined powerful guidelines for benevolent behavior in times of war. See Religious Violence].
The United States, despite its many detractors, is lauded for its unprecedented amount of foreign aid distributed worlwide – over 22 billion dollars annually.
The deeper question is this: What underlying factors really contributed to this dramatic and radical change – that instead of battling each other, or ignoring each other, with each nation caring (at best) only for its own citizens, nations today extend their support for other nations in need?
Is it a result of modern technology allowing us the communication tools to be aware of calamities happening across the world, as well as enabling us to reach and deliver assistance to distant lands – something that was simply impossible in the past? Is it due to the fact that today’s instant media can make it quite embarrassing for us to ignore the suffering of others: With everyone watching and listening – on TV, Internet and blogs – are nations and communities feeling more accountable?
Or is this positive change due not to outside circumstances, but to the evolution of human consciousness – have we actually become more refined and compassionate people?
Cynics will have their take on this, dismissing this historical shift to all types of superficial or mundane causes – from commercial ones (Coca Cola and McDonalds in search of new global markets) to imperial ones (Empire America buying control of the world with philanthropy instead of plunder) to political ones (gaining good will amongst Haitians living in the USA, demonstrating that we can be the protector of the oppressed) or just the plain “feeling good” effect of helping others in need.
I, on the other hand, especially when the wounds are wide open, would prefer to posit the spiritual view on our changed world: Human history has indeed been evolving from an untamed, fragmented and divided world into a refined, integrated and united one. But this evolution is not a miraculous one or one due to mystical forces alone. History is a continuum. We are all our parents’ children. The good deeds of our ancestors – the prices they paid, the sacrifices they made – are all accumulative. Bad deeds get erased with time and are cancelled out through suffering; good deeds, in contrast, live on forever. We are, in effect, midgets perched on the shoulders of giants. As such, our universe – our lives, our nations – are so much more sensitive to each other.
It’s not technology that allows us to be more compassionate and virtuous. But the other way around: Our accumulative efforts – the hard work of good men and women for thousands of years – have refined the material world to the point that we are able to access the internal microscopic forces that shape our physical universe. Our virtue – our work in spirit prevailing over matter, quality superseding quantity, soul dominating over body – has opened up the innate energy within matter, allowing for the technological revolution of our times.
Indeed, as the universe hurtles toward total fusion between spirit (energy) and matter, the integral unity of our earth manifests in the attitude and relationships of one nation to another. As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “It shall come to pass in the last days… that the nations shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:2-4).
So while our hearts go out to the Haitians for their tremendous losses, may our newfound compassion and generosity serve as an additional consolation to all their citizens and families. Though nothing can redeem suffering and loss, the one and only thing that can perhaps counter the enormity of the tragedy is if it generates an unprecedented surge of goodness; a powerful and unprecedented commitment on all our parts – not just collectively, but also individually – to do whatever it takes to bring our lives and this world a step closer to the imminent day when “there will be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor strife” (conclusion of Maimonides’ Yad), “they will not hurt or destroy… for the world will be full of Divine as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9), and “death shall be swallowed up forever and G-d shall wipe the tears from every face” (Isaiah 25:8).
Looking at all the images streaming out of Haiti make it quite difficult to imagine a day like the one just described. But peering into the sensitive hearts, outstretched arms and generous souls of those tirelessly helping the needy makes it easier to envision a world where beauty and love prevail – a time when ravaged Haiti will live up to its name: Beautiful and mountainous lands.