David Z. Vaisberg
Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham

To help or not to help

There’s an old Hasidic story about Reb Nahman Kossover, a friend of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Now a priority for a mystic, and for a hasid, is to always be aware of God’s presence — the hebrew term is d’veikut, a really intense continual clinging to the Holy One. This spiritual term d’veikut is closely related to the hebrew word devek, which means glue. Anyway, Reb Nahman’s method for d’veikut was continually keeping the four-letters of God’s name, Y-H-V-H, in his mind’s eye, so that he might keep them always before him. And because of this, whenever he delivered divrei Torah, he could see God’s name, and therefore God, in the face of everyone he taught.

But, times changed, and Reb Nahman stopped being able to earn a living from teaching; he had to take up work as a merchant in the market. And, in the market, with the rapid pace of buying and selling, he found it harder and harder to keep these four letters at the forefront of his thoughts.

So, what did he do? He hired an assistant to follow him wherever he went. This assistant’s sole job was to serve as a reminder. Whenever Reb Nahman would look in his assistant’s face, he would remember the name of God.[1]

There’s this Jewish concept, B’tzelem Elohim— the idea that we human beings are made in God’s image, and this must be the case given how much power encountering another human being can have over us. In simply seeing another person, we can be overcome with emotion, empathy, and connection. And most of us felt connected into that awful deep sense of empathy in seeing that heart-wrenching picture of a young human being, dead in the water on the shores of the Mediterranean. Though I only looked at the picture of Aylan Kurdi for a second — I could not bear to look for longer — the image, so much more than the letters Y-H-V-H, burns deeply in my mind.

A congregant approached me last Shabbat at the oneg, saying, we’ve got to do something about Syria, about this awful crisis.

Sadly, my initial response was one of hesitation. Yes, the plight of these refugees is deeply concerning, and clearly an enormous humanitarian problem. But, I’m completely stretched in all of my commitments — social justice-wise, and otherwise. First, it’s the high holiday season! High holiday season to rabbis is as tax season for accountants. And, it’s not as though I’m eschewing all our tzedek, or social justice obligations for the sake of praying behind our walls; I’m also devoting a great deal of time to civil rights work in this country — a very serious issue, and pastoral work among those in need in our own community. And, might people not take issue with the fact that we haven’t always had the best relationship with Syria? That Syrians haven’t exactly been known for their love of Israel? And now, we should argue that we help them? As I said, sadly, this was my initial line of thought.

But, another line kept appearing in my mind, one of which some of you may be familiar. “None is too many.” This is the representative statement for the period of Canadian history where the country of which I’m often so proud did less than any other Western nation to help Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi Europe. The total number of Jewish immigrants for this 15 year period allowed to enter and once again be permitted to live in shleimut—in wholeness was a mere 5000.[2] We were those undesirable refugees. We were the ones about whom everyone said, let them be someone else’s problem. Historical records tell us that an immigration official in 1945, when asked about how many Jews would be allowed into Canada after the war, replied, “None is too many.”

I come from a family of immigrants, and a family with so many members, people whose names I don’t even know, who were killed in the war because they did not get out of Europe. I come from a family that only made it out of the Soviet Union because of the kindness and hard work on their behalf, decades later, by the Canadian government.

Every year we dedicate time to contemplating the words “Never Forget,” and “Never Again.” And yet, we fail to take action on these contemplations… genocides, persecutions, threats to life and well-being and security happen again and again and again. The Balkans. Rwanda. Darfur. And now, Syria.

While as busy as I am, as a Jew and a human being, how can I not respond?

It’s quite the dilemma. We all have limited resources. Not just money, but something even more precious— time. And there are so many demands for it. Our time is demanded in our community, to help those we love and care about. And indeed, countless Jewish teachings point us toward taking care of our family first. Our time is demanded in our own nation, to help fellow country-men and -women in their fight for civil rights and justice. Our time is demanded for concerning ourselves with Israel and her future in a volatile Middle East. And now, our time is demanded, but from someone much farther away — someone with whom we don’t share familial or ethnic connections, and someone with whom we share no community at all, other than the community of b’nai adam — of human beings. How do I justify taking time away from those in my more immediate spheres who need help, to help those more distant? But given the devastating nature of this enormous crisis, how do I not?

Do I act on particularism and proximity, or do I act according to conscience, ethic and shared experience?

Judaism points us to both. Our particularist option is clear — kol yisrael arevim ze l’ze—  all Jews are responsible one for another. And likewise, we learn in the Shulchan Arukh’s chapters on tzedakah, the family of a person in need is always turned to first for help. The first obligation falls upon those nearest in relationship. That if my brother is in need, or my neighbor, I need to help them before the guy in need the next town over. And if Israel, the homeland of my people, is need of financial support, as a Jew, my responsibility is to support them before supporting another nation in need, like let’s say, Senegal, or Guatemala. And just as this is the case with my religious and ethnic identities, so too is this applicable for my civic obligations. As a resident of the United States, I have an obligation to care for fellow Americans.

Rabbi Daniel Zemel writes, “To be sure, our God created the whole universe and obliges us to care for it all. But we care for it all as Jews. We inhabit the universe from the perspective of concentric circles: our family, our tribe or people, [and only] then the entire humanity”[3]. Humanity may call on our conscience to act, perhaps with great strength as the humanitarian crisis seems to today, but it will always have to compete with those closer to us. And let’s be clear — acting to take care of those with whom we are close is absolutely nothing of which we should be ashamed.

But, being human means that we automatically feel for others at the moment we recognize their humanity, that we find a point of connection. Hillel, in one of his most famous Pirkei Avot verses, succinctly states the dilemma — “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but, being for myself, what am I?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). Of course, we need to look out for ourselves, but, if we do not think of others, what kind of people are we?

We have a form of the golden rule in our tradition — “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18). We hear of this story of Hillel being asked to summarize the entire Torah while standing on one foot, and his response is “Love your neighbor as yourself, and the rest is commentary.” That loving another, in all forms of the phrase, is the most sacred task we have before us. But, believe it or not, this statement is not without rabbinic controversy. First, what happens when you don’t love yourself? Do you not need to love another? This question needs a whole other d’var Torah, so I won’t dwell on it. Second, what exactly defines neighbor? Is it someone within one of your closer spheres of community? Is it literal? Is it someone who is explicitly one of your own community members, and therefore we’re not required to love the person who does not live among us? Simeon Ben Azzai, talking in light of these issues, disagrees, and says he knows of an even more central tenet of Torah: “on the day that God created human beings God created them b’tzelem Elohim — in the image of God — male and female He created them, blessing them and calling them human (Genesis 5:1-2). To Ben Azzai, the most sacred teaching of all in our tradition is that human beings — all human beings — are glimpses of God.

So with whom do we go? Hillel, leading us to love and protect others, though primarily our own, or Ben Azzai, reminding us that divinity exists among everyone?

The answer, I believe, is both. We need to look after ourselves, but we cannot and must not stop there.

Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, in his book Judaism and Justice, suggests that there are two focal points for the Jewish psyche — two mentalities. There’s the Exodus mentality, and the Sinai mentality.

The Exodus mentality is the one of peoplehood, of connection, and ethnicity. Exodus was our formative moment — we were a group of slaves sharing the experience of Egyptian servitude and then gaining our freedom as one. In the crucible of Egypt we were formed, and we grew through our wanderings on our way to the Promised Land. It is this shared background that, according to Schwartz, “caused Jews to identify with each other regardless of the fact that they might be living thousands of miles apart under different political regimes, speaking different languages, [with their own variations on Judaism]. They believed that the fate of the Jewish people, regardless of temporary domicile, was linked.”[4] Exodus consciousness is our political and ethnic consciousness, and it is one that is logical, and necessary for our continued survival as a faith and people. It is our sense of family, our sense of mutual responsibility, and our sense of need for protection.[5]

This Exodus mentality may be enough to make us a people, but it is not enough to make us holy. And so comes the second mentality: the Sinai consciousness. Sinai is the moment of our spiritual and ethical awakening. It’s the moment that we are commanded to something higher — to recognize that God is one, that God is present in this world, and that we must behave in sacred ways — that we were brought to freedom for a purpose, and this purpose is “replicating in the temporal world the kingdom of heaven.”[6]

The very condition on our being brought to freedom in the Exodus was to serve God and bring holiness to this world. Exodus 19:4-6 reads, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to me. Now then, if you will obey me faithfully and keep my covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples… You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” When we follow not particularistic tendencies but a life of sacred observance and ethical action, it is then that we live up to our covenant and our name. It is then that we become, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, an Or LaGoyim — a light to the nations.

Two of our ancestors can teach us a crucial lesson. There are many commentators who compare Noah’s actions with Abraham’s. Noah is called righteous, in his generation; he’s a tzaddik but only relative to everyone else. God chooses him, but when destruction is brought upon the world, Noah saves his family and only his family. Abraham, on the other hand, who is simply called righteous — a man of tzedek and mishpat, of righteousness and justice, does anything but. He prays on behalf of others, both his people and not, and he submits what Sidney Schwartz calls “the first human-rights complaint in Jewish history.”[7] When God tells Abraham what God plans to do to the people of Sodom, Abraham immediately turns to God in defense of humanity, asking, “will you  sweep away the innocent with the guilty (Genesis18:23)? Abraham stands up to the most powerful being in the universe to defend other human beings. The ancestor we invoke every time we gather for prayer is the one who understood the Sinai consciousness before Sinai ever happened. Ultimately, what we learn from the very foundation of our tradition is that taking care of our own is good. It is righteous. But opening up our tent to all who may need help is higher. The rabbis state, “If anyone has compassion on all created beings, then it is certain evidence that he is from the seed of Abraham, our ancestor” (Bavli Betza 32b). Compassion for others is clear evidence of being among God’s holiest.

So, we learn that while we would be justified in focusing on our own issues, we only truly meet our obligations as Jews in covenant with the Holy One when we reach out to all those who knock on our doors in need. To find a way to work on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of migrants in need is most certainly desired by our tradition, and perhaps even demanded of us. Yes, there are other values we could take to argue against action. But, in my opinion, and according to the opinion of other scholars, particularist inward tendencies — focusing only on our own needs — is necessary only when our very existence is threatened. If Antisemitism was on the rise in America, if Israel was once again at war, then yes, let’s focus our attention. But for now, our camp is safe. We in America are flourishing. And so, it is time for us, in our safety, to live with the Sinai consciousness.

Indeed, this is the consciousness pushed on us these Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, the commemoration of Creation, may be a Jewish holiday, but it is a day for everyone. The Mishnah tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, “all who come into the world are summoned to appear before God.” All, and not just Jews. Jews may certainly be the only ones to read this text, but the fact that the rabbis use universal language tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, we are evaluated not as Jews but as human beings. And as human beings, we are asked, how did we treat others? When we go through Yom Kippur’s confession, we don’t confess ritual sins like I ate bread on Pesach; we confess universal behaviors that we deem problematic — lying, being jealous, stealing, slandering, and ignoring. The High Holy Days are, more than a time for evaluating our Jewish lives, a time for evaluating how much we have cared for all those made b’tzelem elohim, all those who live in this world.

Perhaps, a question to ask ourselves these holidays is, “over the past year, did I stand up for all who needed help? Did I spread out my efforts so I could do as much good as possible for as many as possible?”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes,

“If Judaism is not a tool to become profoundly human, if it is not our entryway, our porthole into humanity, into all of creation, then it is unworthy of its legacy. We must be willing to stand for a Judaism that addresses broad, universal human concerns, one which mobilizes the great resources of the Bible, of Rabbinics, of Hassidut and Kabbalah, of Jewish Poetry, Philosophy, and Art, to be able to allow us to be fully human. [8]

As Reb Nahman of Kossover demonstrates to us, while there are many places that God can be found, the most ever-present reminder is found in every human being on this earth. Which means, one of the most religious acts we can perform— one of the most profoundly human and sacred acts, is to help the many who come to our doorsteps in need.

The answer to my dilemma is that I cannot say, “my time is used up, I cannot help.” Because there are people in need, and I can make a difference.

There are so many ways in our Jewish life here at Emanu-El to make an impact, and there are three things you can do tonight. On the issue of the migrant crisis, we have a handout in the lobby with concrete actions endorsed by the Union for Reform Judaism that can be taken to support the hundreds of thousands of refugees. On civil rights, you can join us as we go down to the Capitol on Wednesday morning to rally with Jews and Blacks from all over the country. And, in our own community, sign up for caring community so that you can be there for our own any and every time we need some chesed — some loving support. We may be limited in what time we have, but almost always, a little more can be found to make that difference.

May this new year be a year of safety and blessing, for us, for Israel, and for all the world. And may we be among those who bring this about.

Shanah Tovah U’m’tukah.


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985.118.

[2] From Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center students materials – http://www.mhmc.ca/media_library/files/50ca081151b8b.pdf, accessed on September 11, 2015.

[3] Hoffman, Lawrence. All the World. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2014. 249.

[4] Schwartz, Sidney. Judaism and Justice. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2006. 18.

[5] Ibid., 17-19.

[6] Ibid., 20.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Hoffman, 90.

About the Author
Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg is Senior Rabbi of Temple B'nai Abraham in Livingston, New Jersey.
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