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The rabbi’s heart goes out to Haiti

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One of the puzzles of Jewish life is that you see incredible generosity of spirit to strangers in many situations, per the Talmudic understanding that all men are made in the image of God, then jack-diddly when it comes to Palestinians. Everyone else is part of the human family. Not Palestinians, not Arabs. It is the great problem of Jewish consciousness today. The (moving) letter below is from Haskel Lookstein, a leading Orthodox rabbi (Newsweek called him #2 influential rabbi in the US), to his congregation, Kehilath Jeshurun, on the Upper East Side of NY, urging them to dig deep for Haiti.

I wonder if Lookstein said anything at all like this when Gaza was reduced to rubble… when kids with burn injuries can’t get out of the open-air prison… when people are drinking water tainted with sewage and are rebuilding houses with mud and straw. I sure doubt it, I hope I’m wrong. But note that Lookstein declined to say a discouraging word a couple years ago when the Forward asked him to condemn rightwing Israeli Effie Eitam’s call to expel Palestinians from the West Bank and sweep them out of the Israeli political process too. Woo boy.

“I think he points to a very serious problem for the State of Israel, and I don’t know what the solution to that problem is,” Lookstein said… “I think you have a very large percentage of the citizens of Israel who are not loyal to the state but rather to the sworn enemies of the state, but I don’t know how to solve that problem.” [democracy is not the answer, I guess] Asked to respond to Eitam’s remarks, Lookstein said, “I don’t think it would be helpful for me to take a position on what Effie Eitam said.”

Now here’s the rabbi on Haiti: 

January 14, 2010

Dear KJ [Kehilath Jeshurun] Family:

We have all been shaken to the core by reports from Haiti, and we are all asking the same question:  What are we to do in the face of such enormous and uninterrupted pain and suffering on the part of all those people whom we have seen on TV and read about in the press?

Our job may not be to carry out immediate relief efforts, but this will be a long-term effort and you and I must play an active part.  We cannot enjoy life here in the New York metropolitan area without sharing our possessions with human beings who are created in God’s image and who are so desperately in need of assistance.

In Parashat Re’eh we receive the command “Lo t’ametz et levavecha,” cautioning us not to harden our hearts against the less fortunate.  In elucidating this verse, Rashi describes a person who is agonizing over whether he should or should not give.  The answer of the Torah is very clear:  Don’t agonize.  Let go!

There are those who, as Rashi describes, start to extend their hand and then pull back.  Therefore the Torah says “Lo tikpotz et yadecha – Do not hold back your hand.”  Let go!  The Torah then reinforces the command to give by using a double language “Patoach tiftach et yadecha” – “Open, you shall surely open your hand.”  Rashi comments “Even 100 times.”

What the Torah is telling us is that giving aid when it is needed does not always have to make sense.  We don’t even have to be absolutely certain that our efforts will help.  Maybe the needy person will be supported from some other quarter.  Nevertheless, I have to give because I am not allowed to go about my business while somebody lives in desperation, without food, clothing, shelter, transportation, etc. I cannot sit back and be a bystander to suffering.  My gift may or may not help, but I cannot simply go about my life, spend money, buy food and clothing, go to the movies and theater, dine out, order-in, or anything else without first giving generously.

The first question, therefore, that we must ask ourselves in the aftermath of Haiti’s massive earthquake is not: “What is the government of Haiti, or the United Nations, or international
humanitarian relief organizations doing?“  Our first question in the face of such misery must be “WHAT AM I DOING?”

The answer to that question is:  I must give.  Here are three ways to give:

1. American Jewish World Service (AJWS) –

2. American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) –

3. American Jewish Congress (AJC) in partnership with the Israeli
relief organization IsraAID –

If you would like to make your gift through the Benevolent Fund of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, you can send tzedakah online using your preferred credit card by visiting our secure online website… and letting us know that your gift is for the Benevolent Fund’s special HAITI account.  If you prefer to pay by check, just send your check payable to KJ Benevolent Fund, and mark it “Haiti Relief.”  Send it to [address eliminated] and at the end of each day we will send out those checks so that the money does not sit in our account more than 24 hours.  This is above and beyond what the Benevolent Fund of the Congregation will do on its own.

Remember:  Don’t ask “What are governments and bureaucracies doing?” Ask only “What am I doing, before I continue to go about my life and take care of my own affairs?”

If we all give generously, we can then pray to God for salvation and
consolation for all those who have been so devastated by this terribly
destructive act of nature.

Haskel Lookstein

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