We are all being challenged and we must all respond compassionately

September 09, 2015 17:39

"Who by water... who by upheaval."

Could we have envisaged last Rosh Hashanah, when saying the vivid words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, how potently they would resonate with the migrant crisis now engulfing Europe?

"Who by water" has tragically acquired distressing relevance to the plight of young Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, together with numerous other migrants who have drowned in the waters of the sea.

"Who by upheaval" can, with hindsight, be seen to have portended the vast suffering experienced by hundreds of thousands of migrants escaping violence in their lands of origin.

As we stand on the cusp of a new year, appealing to the Almighty from the depths of our hearts kotveinu b'sefer hachaim - inscribe us in the Book of Life - we, of course, cannot predict what our fate will be in the year ahead.

However, what is certainly within our grasp is how we respond to events as they impact on us. This is the call of the hour, at a time when we are all being challenged, as a continent, a country, a community, and each of us as individuals, by the daily images of desperate, helpless people seeking refuge within our borders.

During my meeting with Pope Francis last week at the Vatican, I reflected on how my heart was broken by the sight of three-year-old Aylan lying face down on the beach. He responded, rightly, by saying that "we share this world together, and must care for this world together".

Foremost in my mind when talking about the crisis is our halachah relating to charity. In our primary code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, clear priorities are set for situations when, with only limited resources, tensions exist between the needs of an individual and an organisation; between a local charity and a global cause. However, in the event of a knock on the door, where before us is someone who is starving, about to drop down dead and begging us for food, we must immediately put aside our regular priorities and save that person's life.

Right now, tens of thousands of people are knocking on Europe's door. It is a clarion call, and one that requires an unquestioningly compassionate response. We need to recognise that the vulnerable men, women and children whose lives have been devastated by war and persecution are not mere statistics in a news report - they are real people. This is the paradigm shift in mindset that I have called for in the media, and I welcome our government's recognition of the moral imperative to act.

Of course, the formidable challenges set by this crisis inescapably demand a global solution. Any short term measures must, inevitably, be accompanied by longer-term, systemic resolutions to the loss of life that drives these waves of migration at their source. However, this recognition must not deflect our attention away from the plight of thousands of desperate people who will unnecessarily die unless we urgently reach out to help them.

In the course of discussing our communal response to this humanitarian emergency, I have been particularly heartened to witness the eagerness to direct our efforts towards the alleviation of suffering. Indeed, as Jews, many of us have family members who were once refugees, and we recognise here the echoes of our own long and often painful journey as a people.

Undoubtedly, this desire to act is also born of the fact that we are a community imbued with a strong sense of social responsibility.

At this time of great need our instinctive reaction has been, as it often is, to turn outwards in a spirit of generosity, understanding that we must look beyond ourselves and our immediate circle of concern to fulfil our moral responsibilities. World Jewish Relief's Migrant Crisis Appeal is a fine and urgent example of this.

This year, as the Unetaneh Tokef reaches its climax with us highlighting the importance of teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity), we have an opportunity to say these words with great and resounding passion, recognising that they direct us, in the most meaningful of ways, to what our response should be to the situation before us.

This Rosh Hashanah, let us pray intently for a better world and let us be generous in giving charity, so that we, in practice, bring about a better world.

This is something that every one of us can do and it will make a lasting difference.

September 09, 2015 17:39

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