19 October 2017
This year’s High Holiday season arrived during a particularly tumultuous time. It is difficult to know how to cope when faced with what has felt like an endless series of catastrophic events – disasters, both natural and man-made. As our public consciousness seems to shift all too quickly from one tragedy to the next, as a Jewish community, we must brace ourselves against becoming numb to the trauma and instead, channel our emotions into a meaningful communal response.
As we once again begin the yearly Torah reading anew, we will “scroll through” the book of Genesis and recall the ancestors of humankind. In quick succession, we are reminded that ALL of us are created in the image of God, we are ALL the survivors of the flood through the good graces of Noah and his family and then, we zoom in to find a special relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims with the family of Abraham and Sarah. What could this narrative progression teach us as we move past the introspection of the High Holiday season, out from the limited shelter of the sukkah and into a world in need of attention?
Behaving as an “image of God” is quite a high bar. Adam and Eve needed a divine intervention, asked by God, “where are you?” to remind them of their personal responsibilities. Noah duly followed God’s instructions and built an ark for the animals and his family—no biblical text tells us if he reached out to his neighbors. And then we have Abraham and Sarah, becoming models of hospitality and later arguing with God for the just cause to save righteous strangers of Sodom. Over time, we adopt a broader definition of our individual and collective responsibility to the other. We are reminded of our shared humanity and the obligation to follow Abraham and Sarah’s legacy, “directing his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just.” (Genesis 18:19)
Nonprofit organizations and their donors have been tested by the continuing series of natural disasters over the past months. Crisis fatigue can set in as the statistics of people affected mount and the needs seem endless. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington pledges to meet its sacred responsibilities in the full spirit of the Jewish value of achrayut – our moral responsibility to care for the other and treat their needs as if they are our own. We must be nimble in our immediate response, and then find out what ongoing needs remain for vulnerable populations.
As we respond, we aspire to fulfil the ancient wisdom of Hillel (1st Century Sage) who reflected, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me; But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” Our responsibility must be to the Jewish community but not only to the Jewish community. Our Achrayut, our responsibility, must include those beyond our borders and beyond our community. Even though we may all, at times, face compassion fatigue, we join with others and together respond to the needs of residents in Houston, Florida, the Caribbean Islands, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Las Vegas and California.
We remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Ethics of the Sages, “It is not up to you to finish the work; yet neither are you free to avoid it.” We remain conscious of our needs and the needs of others, and we contribute to a greater whole that benefits all of God’s children.