Poverty in J'lem 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I often wonder why, despite the pogroms, the exiles, the persecutions, the Jewish people have been prosperous and successful for 3,000 years, while other nations have withered and disappeared. Is the answer in our might? In our perseverance? In our wisdom? I believe that the true answer can be found when we take a closer look at the weaker links of the never-ending chain of Jewish continuity. Contrary to the social-Darwinist ideologies which glorified the survival of the fittest, the Jewish people have survived and thrived by giving to charity and helping the weak, anytime and anywhere.
Ethics of the Fathers (Chapter I) teaches: “Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.”
This, if you will, is Judaism in a nutshell. Your house is only worthy of being a home to the extent that it serves for propagating good within the community and aiding the needy.
Yet, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, it is us, the people who dwell safely in our land, who do not contribute enough. There is severe poverty in Israel and it cannot be ignored. That the government is obligated by the social contract to help the poor, does not release each and every one of us of our social, moral and human obligation to help others. The true strength and resilience of a society is reflected in its collective and voluntary ability to support its weak members in times of strife. That is true national resilience, that is the meaning of mutual guarantee.
MOST OF the donations received in Israel come from overseas. We must commend and thank every donor with all our hearts. However, every time I meet a substantial donor from the Diaspora, I feel my heart ache. We constantly hear of Israeli companies sold for hundreds of millions, of groundbreaking innovations that guarantee the entrepreneurs great wealth – and rightfully so. We must praise, not envy, those successful achievements attained by the best Israeli minds, may they prosper and grow. However, in my opinion, true wealth is achieved when the successful few invest their resources and ability to help the weak.
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire and major donor, who will come to Jerusalem in May to be awarded the first ever Genesis Prize for his contribution to humanity and his commitment to Jewish values, said once that his father, who was not a wealthy man at all, used to donate money regularly to social causes.
According to Bloomberg, “his philanthropy was a gift – not only to those organizations, but to me too. Every dollar and each volunteer helps, in more ways than you can imagine.”
In order to give of yourself, you do not have to be rich. The Zionist Movement was established by humble and impoverished people who lent a hand and took part in the joint effort. The challenges have not disappeared, they have only changed. Israeli society needs compassion, giving, contribution – that is its oxygen, the foundations of its existence.
Today, when the internal conflicts in the fragmented Israeli society stand out sharper than ever, finding their reflection in the debates at the Knesset floor, everyone must find something that he can contribute. Let’s rise above the disputes and agree to one idea – the weak are not to blame for their weakness. The poor, victims of violence and even animals – they all need protection and aid, they all rely on the resilience of a society to support them. Indeed, we all have excuses. Everyone works hard and copes with the existential burden. We all just want to “keep our head above the water,” we all want to get through the day. Let’s lift our eyes and look around. Let’s lend a helping hand, each of us as we can and for a cause close to our hearts.
It could be alms to a beggar, an hour with a lonely senior citizen or even a donation to aid victims of the natural disaster in the Philippines. Let’s strengthen others and ourselves, take one more step toward being a model society that serves, in the deepest sense of the term, as a light upon the nations.
As it appears in Deuteronomy 15:11: “Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”The author is the Speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Genesis Prize Committee, which selects the winner from among candidates whose actions, in addition to their achievements, embody the character of the Jewish people.