Where are the Beautiful and Mountainous
When a calamity strikes the public we must
cry out, examine our lives and correct our ways. To say
that the calamity is merely a natural phenomenon and a chance
occurrence is insensitive and cruel – Maimonides, Laws
of Fasting 1:2-3
Amidst indescribable death and destruction, it may appear
callous to focus on a positive side of the disastrous earthquake
that ravaged Haiti this week.
Yet, it is hard to ignore the global outcry and enormous
humanitarian effort to help this wretched and impoverished
country – in very glaring contrast to how nations
reacted to each other since the dawn of history.
There was a time when one country’s disaster was
another’s celebration. Entire empires were built upon
others ruins and misery. Ancient and medieval history is
fraught with wars and aggression between nations. Every
empire was out to conquer and humiliate its neighbor (or
beyond), let alone not interested in helping another nation
Today we see a radically different world. Instead of pillaging
and exploiting the misfortune of others, we are witnessing
an admirable outpouring of international aid – from
nations and from individuals – to stricken Haiti.
Obviously much more can and should be done to address the
people in crisis. Yet, it is important to acknowledge every
positive gesture of help.
Though hardly a consolation in face of the magnitude of
today’s great tragedy, it is mildly comforting to
witness nations having at least a semblance of awareness
that we all are part of one human race, and we therefore
share responsibility toward one another, something quite
unprecedented in human history.
The mystics see our responsibility for each other in a
cosmic way. All human beings – and for that matter,
every fiber of existence – are part of one large organism;
each an indispensable musical note in the Divine symphony.
We are all integrally connected and interconnected. The
loss and pain of one component affects us all. Indeed, all
of time, space and spirit (man) are pieces of one seamless
Yet, this integral web connection is hidden from our view.
A great “shroud” conceals our interconnectivity
and interdependence. The shroud is called the “grand
tzimtzum” – a cosmic black hole that turns existence
inside out, and allows us to think that we are alone and
disconnected from everything else. It creates the narcissistic
perception that the only thing that exists is you, in this
moment and this space, with no inkling of your fundamental
link with all other moments, spaces and people.
This “tzimtzum” is the startling root – both brilliant
and horrific – of all human apathy, of every form of indifference
and complacency that we are so capable of. Since we are
all one cohesive organism, how is it possible, ask the mystical
students of unity, that we should be able to go our way,
sleep and otherwise disregard the suffering of our brethren?!
Can one part of a body be at peace when another part is
Blindness is the answer. The great shroud masks our integral
unity, and as a result we fell separate, to the point that
we can actually harm each other, not recognizing that in
doing so we harm ourselves as well.
Life’s great challenge – as great and even greater than
the “tzimtzum” itself – is to wake up and be aware: To open
the curtains and reveal the underlying unity through living
an integrated life.
We cannot grasp the mystery of human suffering. Silence
has always been the ultimate response to unfathomable tragedy.
Not the silence of resignation. The silence of strength
– of standing in overwhelmed awe of experiences that
the human mind cannot contain. Not logic, not reason, not
all of our other limited faculties can process the sheer
senselessness of loss and grief.
Yet, men and women of deep faith always went a step further.
(The story in these weeks Torah portions about the Egyptian
exile and exodus is a case in point). They did not allow
suffering to break them and their belief in the force of
good. After silently acknowledging the mystery of pain,
they forged ahead with fortitude and strength to become
greater people and make the world a more beautiful place.
They understood that our integral unity infers another
vital conclusion: Just as we are hurt when others are in
pain, even thousands of miles away, we have the power to
strengthen each other as well. In some strange way, our
personal behavior in one corner of the globe has the power
to repair ruptures in another part of the world.
So, on one hand we cry over the epic proportions of this
tragedy. Lives have been lost, families shattered, millions
traumatized. And above all, we have all been exposed to
the sheer vulnerability of our lives on Earth.
Yet, at the same time, tragedy serves as a wake-up call
and compels us to act and intensify our commitment to goodness
– and do everything in our power to help the less
And how we react to the disaster of others also has much
to teach us. When you think about the discord between nations
of old, it is not a small miracle that nations today are
volunteering their assistance to pitiful Haiti.
When exactly did things change?
Charity can be traced back all the way to Biblical Abraham,
who pioneered and epitomized chesed – a life dedicated
to giving, kindness and compassion. Charity becomes a mainstay
and a foundation in Biblical literature.
But when did collective charity begin? Which community
or nation was the first to reach out and assist others?
I haven’t done enough research to conclude when this new
humanitarian trend began. Perhaps one of you reading this
can uncover the first incident in history of one nation
offering help and expending resources to assist another.
But it appears that this changed attitude began around two
centuries ago. With the weakening of absolute religious
authority and the emergence of the Enlightenment, new attitudes
were adopted toward justice and social reform. The advent
of collective respect for human rights in the 18th
century also gave rise to humanitarian social action.
Some attribute the first international act of organized
international compassion to the Red Cross, which was formed
in 1863 to alleviate suffering resulting from war. Following
that came the birth of international humanitarian law with
Hague and Geneva Conventions, international treaties defining
acceptable practices while engaged in war and armed conflict.
[Interesting to note, an almost unknown but fascinating
fact: Several millennia before modern international humanitarian
laws were adopted, the Torah – many years ahead of
its time – outlined powerful guidelines for benevolent
behavior in times of war. See Religious
The United States, despite its many detractors, is lauded
for its unprecedented amount of foreign aid distributed
worlwide – over 22 billion dollars annually.
The deeper question is this: What underlying factors really
contributed to this dramatic and radical change –
that instead of battling each other, or ignoring each other,
with each nation caring (at best) only for its own citizens,
nations today extend their support for other nations in
Is it a result of modern technology allowing us the communication
tools to be aware of calamities happening across the world,
as well as enabling us to reach and deliver assistance to
distant lands – something that was simply impossible
in the past? Is it due to the fact that today’s instant
media can make it quite embarrassing for us to ignore the
suffering of others: With everyone watching and listening
– on TV, Internet and blogs – are nations and
communities feeling more accountable?
Or is this positive change due not to outside circumstances,
but to the evolution of human consciousness – have
we actually become more refined and compassionate people?
Cynics will have their take on this, dismissing this historical
shift to all types of superficial or mundane causes –
from commercial ones (Coca Cola and McDonalds in search
of new global markets) to imperial ones (Empire America
buying control of the world with philanthropy instead of
plunder) to political ones (gaining good will amongst Haitians
living in the USA, demonstrating that we can be the protector
of the oppressed) or just the plain “feeling good”
effect of helping others in need.
I, on the other hand, especially when the wounds are wide
open, would prefer to posit the spiritual view on our changed
world: Human history has indeed been evolving from an untamed,
fragmented and divided world into a refined, integrated
and united one. But this evolution is not a miraculous one
or one due to mystical forces alone. History is a continuum.
We are all our parents’ children. The good deeds of
our ancestors – the prices they paid, the sacrifices
they made – are all accumulative. Bad deeds get erased
with time and are cancelled out through suffering; good
deeds, in contrast, live on forever. We are, in effect,
midgets perched on the shoulders of giants. As such, our
universe – our lives, our nations – are so much
more sensitive to each other.
It’s not technology that allows us to be more compassionate
and virtuous. But the other way around: Our accumulative
efforts – the hard work of good men and women for thousands
of years – have refined the material world to the point
that we are able to access the internal microscopic forces
that shape our physical universe. Our virtue – our work
in spirit prevailing over matter, quality superseding quantity,
soul dominating over body – has opened up the innate energy
within matter, allowing for the technological revolution
of our times.
Indeed, as the universe hurtles toward total fusion between
spirit (energy) and matter, the integral unity of our earth
manifests in the attitude and relationships of one nation
to another. As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “It shall
come to pass in the last days… that the nations shall
beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into
pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:2-4).
So while our hearts go out to the Haitians for their tremendous
losses, may our newfound compassion and generosity serve
as an additional consolation to all their citizens and families.
Though nothing can redeem suffering and loss, the one and
only thing that can perhaps counter the enormity of the
tragedy is if it generates an unprecedented surge of goodness;
a powerful and unprecedented commitment on all our parts
– not just collectively, but also individually –
to do whatever it takes to bring our lives and this world
a step closer to the imminent day when “there will
be neither famine nor war, neither envy nor strife”
(conclusion of Maimonides’ Yad), “they will
not hurt or destroy… for the world will be full of
Divine as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9),
and “death shall be swallowed up forever and G-d shall
wipe the tears from every face” (Isaiah 25:8).
Looking at all the images streaming out of Haiti make it
quite difficult to imagine a day like the one just described.
But peering into the sensitive hearts, outstretched arms
and generous souls of those tirelessly helping the needy
makes it easier to envision a world where beauty and love
prevail – a time when ravaged Haiti will live up to
its name: Beautiful and mountainous lands.