Responding to Disaster: Earthquake in Haiti (1/12/10)

 

On the evening of Tuesday, January 12th 2010, Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake, measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale, making it the worst in the region in more than 200 years. It struck about 10 miles southwest of the capital of Port-au-Prince and has left thousands dead as well as the Haitian population of approximately 3 million people in need of relief. 

In response to this massive earthquake, AJWS has created the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund to support its network of grantees as they address the urgent needs of the affected population. For more information, visit www.ajws.org/haitiearthquake.

As concerned global citizens and as Jews, it is our moral obligation to respond to humanitarian crises. The following texts explore these obligations.


Rambam, Laws of Mourning 14:4-5, (cf. Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah, 235-238)

Translation Original
Visiting the sick is a mitzvah incumbent upon all and even the great ones visit the small ones. We visit many times a day and the one who visits more is more praiseworthy, provided they don’t bother the sick ones with their visits. And anyone who visits a sick person, it’s as if he lifted part of his illness and made it lighter. And anyone who doesn’t visit, it’s as if he’s a spiller of blood.
בקור חולים מצוה על הכל, אפילו גדול מבקר את הקטן, ומבקרין הרבה פעמים ביום, וכל המוסיף משובח ובלבד שלא יטריח, וכל המבקר את החולה כאילו נטל חלק מחליו והקל מעליו, וכל שאינו מבקר כאילו שופך דמים.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What happens when people are ill that makes visits so important? What is the role of human interaction in the process of healing?
2. How do you think this text would respond to terminal illness?
3. What social justice themes emerge from this text?


Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13

Translation Original
When God created the first man, God showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said, ‘See how beautiful and perfect are My creations! All that I have created, I created for you. Therefore, be mindful so that you do not abuse or destroy My world. For if you abuse or destroy it, there is no one to repair it after you.' [AJWS translation]
בשעה שברא הקב"ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What responsibility does this text place on the shoulders of humanity?
 


Leviticus 24:17-22

Translation Original
If a man kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast will make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. He who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but he who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one law for stranger and citizen alike: for I am your God. [JPS translation]
וְאִישׁ כִּי יַכֶּה כָּל נֶפֶשׁ אָדָם מוֹת יוּמָת: וּמַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בְּהֵמָה יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ: וְאִישׁ כִּי יִתֵּן מוּם בַּעֲמִיתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ: שֶׁבֶר תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן כַּאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּאָדָם כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּוֹ: וּמַכֵּה בְהֵמָה יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה וּמַכֵּה אָדָם יוּמָת: מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כַּגֵּר כָּאֶזְרָח יִהְיֶה כִּי אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What power dynamics are at play?
3. Wealthy countries have a history of inflicting harm on poor countries in order to take their natural resources, their cheap labor, and often their lives. How can we hold our own governments accountable for their actions across the globe?
 


Leviticus Rabbah 4:6

Translation Original
A man in a boat began to drill a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. "What concern is it of yours?" he responded. "I am making a hole under my seat, not yours." They replied: "That is so, but when the water comes in-it will sink the whole boat and we will all drown."
תני רשב"י משל לבני אדם שהיו יושבין בספינה נטל אחד מהן מקדח והתחיל קודח תחתיו אמרו לו חבריו מה אתה יושב ועושה אמר להם מה אכפת לכם לא תחתי אני קודח אמרו לו שהמים עולין ומציפין עלינו את הספינה

Suggested Discussion Questions

What could the word areivim mean in this context?

What does the metaphor of the boat teach us about the nature of living as part of a community?

The key to this text is to understand the word areiv. In legal terms, it means a guarantor: one who guarantees an obligation and has a legal duty to fulfill it. Simply by virtue of being a Jew, I am responsible for you and you are responsible for me. I promise to take care of you and you promise to take care of me.

Another meaning of areiv is being mixed up or bound together with something. That is, Jews are bound together not just legally but emotionally, historically, and culturally.

Living as part of the community can necessitate giving up individual freedom. Our independence extends only to the extent that it does not
compromise the welfare of the group.



Have you had experiences in which you have felt bound up, or responsible, for other Jews?

Do you feel responsible for other communities or groups in the same way? Which other communities and why?


Sforno on Leviticus 19:9-10

Translation Original
. . . After having accepted God, it is appropriate for us to walk in God’s ways, to practice righteousness and justice. Among the types of righteousness are leket, shich’chah and pe’ah that are discussed here. And this is what is meant by, “I, Adonai, am your God.” As if to say, “And since I am your God, and all of My ways are kind and true, it is appropriate for you to observe these types of righteousness that are pleasing before Me.”
ביאר שאחר שקבלנו אותו לאלהים ראוי לנו ללכת בדרכיו, לעשות צדקה ומשפט, וממיני הצדקה הם לקט שכחה ופאה האמורים בענין, וזה ביאר באמרו אני ה' אלהיכם, כלומר: ומכיוון שאני אלהיכם, וכל ארחותי חסד ואמת, ראוי לכם לשמור מיני הצדקה אלה הרצויים לפני.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. How are leket, shich'chah and pe'ah ways to practice righteousness and justice?
2. What are the limitations of the kind of direct giving that leket, pe'ah and shich'chah represent?


Mishna, Pirkei Avot 1:2

Translation Original
Shimon the Righteous was a member of the Great Assembly. He used to say, "By three things the world exists: On the Torah, on worship and on acts of loving kindness." [Soncino translation]
שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים:

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What is an act of loving kindness? How is it unique compared to any good deed?
3. What social justice themes emerge from this text?
 


Theodor Herzl, August 6, 1896

Original
"Build your home in such a way that a stranger may feel happy in your midst."

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. What does this task require?
2. How has Israel incorporated this statement?
3. How does this statement relate to the current status of foreign workers in Israel?


Genesis Rabbah 24:7

Translation Original
Ben ‘Azzai said: “'This is the book of the descendants of Adam' is a great principle of the Torah.” R. Akiva said: "'Love your neighbor as yourself' (Leviticus 19:18) is a great principle, so that you must not say, "Since I have been put to shame, let my neighbor be put to shame, since I have been cursed, let my neighbor be cursed." R. Tanhuma said: "If you do so, know whom you put to shame, for 'In the image of God did God make him'" (Genesis 5:1). [AJWS translation]
בן עזאי אומר זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול בתורה, ר"ע אומר (ויקרא יט) ואהבת לרעך כמוך, זה כלל גדול בתורה, שלא תאמר הואיל ונתבזיתי יתבזה חבירי עמי הואיל ונתקללתי יתקלל חבירי עמי, א"ר תנחומא אם עשית כן דע למי אתה מבזה, בדמות אלהים עשה אותו.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. This text has powerful implication on how we relate to those around us. What are some ways we can implement this thinking into our daily lives? our politics?
 


Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, "Unfinished Rabbi" (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998), p. 60

Original
Jews are commanded to open their homes to visitors, particularly the poor and the learned. Jews are not to convert their homes into fortresses protecting the nuclear family from invasion, but to sensitize their children to other people by inviting visitors regularly into their homes. The house is not to be a refuge but a bridge – if the analogy can be imagined, a kind of spiritually self-aware hotel.

Suggested Discussion Questions

1. Who are the players in this text – seen and unseen?
2. What power dynamics are at play?
3. What social justice themes emerge from this text?


Jewish Obligation to Help

 

When reading these texts, please consider the following questions:

 

  • These texts refer to direct encounters with people in need. Given our ability to access images and testimonies of people affected by disasters, how might we expand this obligation to those farther away?
  • What can we learn from these texts about our obligation to respond to the needs of non-Jews?


Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a

Translation Original
How do we know that if a person sees another person drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, s/he is bound to save him? From the verse, “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!” (Leviticus 19:16). [AJWS translation]
מניין לרואה את חבירו שהוא טובע בנהר, או חיה גוררתו, או לסטין באין עליו, שהוא חייב להצילו - תלמוד לומר לא תעמד על דם רעך (ויקרא י"ט).



Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:2

Translation Original
And any who sees a poor person begging and hides his eyes and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as it says (Deuteronomy 15:7), “Do not harden your heart or close your hand from your poor brother.” [AJWS translation]
וכל הרואה עני מבקש והעלים עיניו ממנו ולא נתן לו צדקה עבר בלא תעשה שנאמר (דברים טו:ז) לא תאמץ את לבבך ולא תקפוץ את ידך מאחיך האביון.


 


Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 61a

Translation Original
Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace. [AJWS translation]
ת"ר: מפרנסים עניי נכרים עם עניי ישראל, ומבקרין חולי נכרים עם חולי ישראל, וקוברין מתי נכרים עם מתי ישראל, מפני דרכי שלום.



Making a Difference

 

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, as quoted in Smiling Each Day, Rabbi Avraham Twerski (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1993)

Original
The seismograph has taught us that a tremor in any part of the world can be felt by a sufficiently sensitive instrument everywhere in the world. The same is true of a person’s deeds. One should not think that his actions do not affect others. Everything one does in some way affects everyone else in the world. [Avraham Twerski translation]

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873-1936) was the head of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland in the early 20th century.

  • It can feel overwhelming to try to respond to disasters of this magnitude. How can we help ourselves and each other stay committed to addressing the immediate needs of the victims and to supporting the rebuilding and community development efforts? 

 


Understanding Contemporary Natural Disasters

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A wide variation in the number and intensity of natural hazards is normal and to be expected. What we have witnessed over the past decades, however, is not nature’s variation but a clear upward trend caused by human activities. There were three times as many great natural disasters in the 1990s as in the 1960s, while disaster costs increased more than nine-fold in the same period.

We know why the trend is upward. Ninety per cent of disaster victims worldwide live in developing countries, where poverty and population pressures force growing numbers of poor people to live in harm's way -- on flood plains, in earthquake-prone zones and on unstable hillsides. Unsafe buildings compound the risks. The vulnerability of those living in risk-prone areas is perhaps the single most important cause of disaster casualties and damage.

Second, we know that unsound development and environmental practices exacerbate the problem. Massive logging operations and the destruction of wetlands reduce the soil’s ability to absorb heavy rainfall, making erosion and flooding more likely….

Above all we must never forget that it is poverty, not choice, that drives people to live in risk-prone areas. Equitable and sustainable economic development is not only a good in its own right, but also one of the best forms of disaster insurance.

  • According to Annan, why are poor people more prone to being affected by natural disasters?
  • How can this understanding inform our approach, not only to disaster relief but also to international development?