Against a sea of chaos

Scarcely three hours’ drive from where I live, all hell is breaking loose. One of the oldest and culturally-rich cities on Earth is now no more than rubble, with fanatics fighting over the ruins, killing anyone in their way.  A few days ago, an Arab Israeli news anchor switched to English in mid-broadcast to deliver an impassioned plea for the world to take whatever action is necessary to save the civilians trapped in Aleppo.

And while it’s been pointed out that there are no “good guys” in the civil war in Syria, and that what is happening there cannot be called a “Holocaust,” but rather the result of a long-drawn out civil war, still what remains is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

And it isn’t only Syria. We are surrounded by wars and civil wars, with failed states collapsing into a primordial stew of hatred and nihilism on all sides, with suicidal regimes seeking nuclear weapons in order to carry out their expressed goals of obliterating all of us. Israel, a country the size of an American metropolis, is like a tiny island of sanity in sea of chaos. Now we begin to feel the tide lapping around our ankles here too.

The true meaning of Tikkun Olam

So what’s the solution? Some years ago, when I despaired of human nature, my teacher Rav Ish-Shalom said: “Give me the love for one human being for another. Give me social justice and an end to intolerance. Give me anything which helps to end the suffering of people living here and now. That is the only answer.”

Perhaps this is part of the lesson of Avraham’s plea for the wicked city of S’dom: that it is not our job to decide who is worth saving. It is God’s job to administer justice, to weigh out the future of individuals and nations based on their past and present. But it is our job to defend one another, even against God’s justice if necessary.

And so we see something happening that probably will not make international headlines, being too humble in scope, too… human. Israelis — Jews, Muslims, and Christians, religious and secular — are reaching into their pockets and donating to help the refugee children of Syria.

We like to speak of “Tikkun Olam” as “fixing the world,” but in its original mishnaic origin, Tikkun Olam is much more modest in scope. It simply means countering undesirable side-effects of human nature in response to specific, concrete needs on a case-by-case basis — feeding the hungry person at your doorstep, rather than attempting to resolve world hunger. Small-scale intervention is still “saving the world.”

Nor is this strictly altruism, but rather a realistic appraisal of the role that self-esteem plays in the will to survive. By enlarging the circle of those to whom we extend help, we acknowledge not only their humanity, but our own as well.  So to those who say that helping others detracts from our own efforts to survive, I would say it is just the opposite: by helping others, we empower ourselves as a community. Holding onto humanity is never a wasted exercise, even when facing desperate odds. Perhaps especially when facing desperate odds!

I believe that Rav Ish-Shalom is right: we win back a space of sanity by our choices, one act of kindness at a time. It may not hold back the chaos on our borders…

But then again, it just might!

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.