[This column is my love letter to the people of Haiti, and to the many Israelis and Diaspora Jews whose hearts connected with them across miles and cultures. This piece originally appeared in the Heritage on Jan. 22, 2010.]
Jewish hearts around the world open for Haiti
By Lyn Payne
Thus said the Lord:
A cry is heard in Ramah--
Wailing, bitter weeping--
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted
For her children, who are gone.
It was the footage of the woman kneeling in the dust, her voice one long contralto keen of agony, that personalized it for me. And the man praying that the voice the rescue team heard under the stones came from his wife. The fawn-eyed gaze of the two-year-old girl who emerged physically unhurt from the debris that covered her dead parents. And the baby boy, born with the help of an Israeli doctor in the IDF field hospital on Port-au-Prince’s soccer field, whose mother named him “Israel.”
We’re into the second week after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti’s people and crushed its feeble infrastructure. Bodies lie scattered over streets, and people smear toothpaste under their nostrils to dull the stench of rotting flesh. International aid, from governments and organizations, has mobilized on a massive scale, but until this week, much of it languished in the capital’s airport, because the means of delivering it had collapsed. Only a few days ago, doctors begged for antibiotics to treat limbs infected with gangrene, as they pleaded with parents to allow their children to have their legs amputated to give them a chance to survive.
If such a thing as a shining light can even be said to exist in this hell on earth, Israel is a major part of the reason. On Jan. 18, CNN reported that the Israelis were running the only fully functioning field hospital; other countries’ teams were sending patients there, and the Israelis had treated hundreds. ZAKA search and rescue teams, whose members are observant Jews, worked through Shabbat to free victims from the wreckage, keeping the holiest commandment of saving lives. A surreal news clip shows a group of Haitians thanking their rescuers with a chorus of “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem.” Even the BBC, often criticized for anti-Zionist bias, reported the Israelis’ efforts.
The 220-person Israeli team set up their MASH unit as soon as they arrived, and plan to keep it in place for at least a few weeks. When a tiny, impoverished and brutalized country—one with no obvious historical or ethnic connection to their own—needed them, the Israelis, helped by the Jewish Diaspora’s alphabet soup of aid agencies, synagogues and individuals—flew thousands of miles to say, “Hineni.” We are here.
Jews are certainly not alone in caring or in the ability to raise funds and deliver aid: The U.S. government, along with nations like Turkey, Mexico and China, and religious and secular groups of all persuasions, have raced to help. Yet the instant and unstinting—and highly effective—response of the worldwide Jewish community has me pondering the particular map of the Jewish heart, as it has historically opened to aid the afflicted of every race, nation and creed.
Judaism continually insists that helping those less fortunate is not simply a generous option, but rather a religious obligation. Contrast that with right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh’s belittling diatribe against the Obama administration for aiding Haiti, saying the President wanted only to gain favor with “the black community, with the light-skinned and the dark-skinned community” of African-Americans. Fortunately, Limbaugh’s is the position of only a tiny minority of unsophisticated and emotionally stunted Americans. His disgusting bigotry was disavowed by former President George W. Bush, and aid efforts have been embraced by people across the political landscape. But extreme as it is, Limbaugh’s rhetoric offers a clear opposite against which to better see the power of Jewish ethics. To this puerile, spiteful, hateful voice gleefully chortling, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” into the face of the universe, Judaism replies, Yes, you are.
As Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks describes in his book “To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility,” Judaism is alone among religions in proclaiming that human beings are given the power by God to become partners in perfecting the world. Sacks points out just how radical that concept is, and how it confers responsibility to act with justice and righteousness. It’s as if he were saying that Judaism is a continual dialogue between the reality of what exists now, and the possible futures, good and bad, which will only be brought about by our own actions—or lack of action.
“Each religious act we do has an effect on the ecology of creation,” Sacks writes in explaining the kabbalistic concept of tikkun olam.
This holistic view is not only humane, although, dayenu, that would have been enough; it also fits the emerging reality of life in the 21st century—in a world Thomas Friedman calls “hot, flat and crowded,” where a political upheaval, climate change or natural disaster in one place increasingly and directly affects economics, infrastructure and lifestyles everywhere else. A butterfly’s wing moving in China can now truly be said to set off a revolution on the other side of the globe. To deny this reality is to join the likes of Rush Limbaugh, not only in bigotry, but in self-destructive ignorance.
In this ultra-connected world, it is not just our moral duty as Jews, but in our enlightened self-interest as human beings, to say, with the same passion as we view ourselves at Passover as having been personally redeemed from slavery in Egypt: I personally was pulled from the rubble in Haiti.