Japan’s tragedy–and us

Thinking about the unfolding tragedy in Japan makes my stomach hurt and my heart ache.  How fragile are we as humans, as a civilization?  The ever so slight shifting of tectonic plates has caused such enormous disruption to human lives that the connection between the two seems simply unreal.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik, z”l, has taught us, we must ask not only “Why?” but as a religious Jew, “How do we respond?”  In this light, I would like to reproduce an excerpt from a Dvar Torah that I gave at Ohev Shalom this past Shabbos:

The Midrash Tanchuma quotes a very surprising statement by the scholar Ben Azzai: the verse  זה ספר תולדות האדם—this the book of the generations of Adam, a verse in the book of Genesis—this is a major principle in the Torah.

Really?  These are the generations of Adam?   This is a major principle!?  You could argue that this is one of the most mundane statements in the entire Torah.

In fact, the midrash proceeds to offer Rabbi Akiva’s famous opinion that the great principle in the Torah is “ואהבת לרעך כמוך”—Love your friend as yourself.  Now that is a great principle!!

So what could Ben Azzai have meant?  What does “These are the generations of Adam” have to do with major principles?

Let’s look more closely at the verse:

זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם בְּיוֹם בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ:These are the generations of Adam (or mankind), on the day that G-d created Adam, in the likeness of G-d did He create him.

Aha!  This is not just about lineage and geneology.  The Torah is explaining what binds together all of humanity (our common ancestry) and why it is special (we are created in G-d’s likeness.)    Now we can understand much better:זֶה סֵפֶר תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם   provides the backdrop to how we relate to the entire world–as humans with a common ancestor with a common divine likeness, we are compelled to treat each other with love, dignity, respect, and care.

I am privileged to be the head of school at the Berman Hebrew Academy.   In our school, as in many day schools, the teaching of morality and ethics has dual aspects:

On the one hand, we want our children to know that doing what is right is not a uniquely Jewish value or concept but it is one that we share with the whole world.

At the same time, there are specific mitsvot in the Torah that dictate to us how we–the Jews who are obligated in the commandments–must behave.

We as Jews can engage with the world and do good things because they are the right thing to do–just like anyone else.  Or we can do them as Jews, because we are Jews, because our Judaism compels us to look out for others, engage with the world and rescue the unfortunate.

When we talk about the mitsvot ben adam le-havero, we could just as easily talk about personal ethics.  But we don’t.  We talk about mitsvot.  Jewish, religious obligations.  I help the old lady across the street or give charity or rescue orphans in Haiti or engage with ADAM, with humanity, BECAUSE I am Jewish.  Of course, non-Jews do these things as well but their context is different.

These are the generations of Adam–this is the great principle of the Torah:

If you are a member of the people of Israel, if you were given the Torah, your motivation to help the world should not stem just from your humanity but from your Jewishness.  This provides your context, your compulsion, your pride and, yes, your religious duty.

Jewish day schools, like Judaism itself, searches for a balance between the particularity of being Jewish and the universality of being human.  But couldn’t you argue that this is a false dichotomy–that what we are really striving for, what we are really trying to inculcate in our students, is the sense that the particularity of being Jewish can drive your positive relationship with the generations of Adam?  This is why I so much prefer when we refer to our community service requirement for each of our high schoolers  as chessed hours–the work is the same, the beneficiaries the same, but the sense that this is the fulfillment of Judaism is so much stronger when we refer to this obligation as chessed.

As it usually does, Israel has sent a team of doctors and rescue workers to Japan to help in the relief efforts.  Most of us do not have the capability of doing something quite so hands-on to help the Japanese.  What we can do is to provide funds to help the effort and we can do it through numerous outlets.  Obviously, the Red Cross campaign is the largest and most well-known place to contribute.  But the Federation of Greater Washington also raises funds for emergencies such as this and it is through the Federation that I prefer to donate—not only as a statement to the world that Jews are donating to the cause, but also because it is a demonstration that my Jewish commitments are fueling my desire to help.  I hope that you, too, can do what you can, whether as a Jew, a gentile or as a member of the human race, to help those who are suffering in Japan.

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