Lech Lecha: Caring about others as much as we care about ourselves

We need to stop being so objective when discussing the suffering of others.

Quebec police at site of shooting. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Quebec police at site of shooting.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week Canada was shocked by two terror attacks. The first occurred on October 20 in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, south of Montreal, when Martin Rouleau, a recent convert to Islam, ran over two military officers killing one and injuring the other.
The second occurred on October 22, when 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, also a recent convert to Islam, went on a shooting spree in the Center Block at Parliament Hill and killed a guard outside.
This double attack rocked the peaceful nation. The radio waves were filled with talk show hosts and callers demanding that Canada consider this an act of war. Ordinary Canadians appear to be considering the compromise of personal liberties for the sake of collective security. They are willing to expand the mandate of police and security agencies to help them fight terror. People are demanding the imprisonment of every name on the terror watch list. They are enraged and also a little afraid.
It wasn’t just on the radio. In his address to parliament the morning after, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that “the powers of law and police need to be strengthened” in the area of surveillance and security. He echoed his promise from the night before to “take all the necessary steps to fight terror in Canada.”
Did these attacks move us? How close to home does terror need to strike before it becomes personal?
When it happens abroad we respond rationally and with proportion, but when it happens at home, we become emotional. Yes, time will pass, tempers will cool and we will revert to our rational and calm selves. But for now, the emotions are stirred because the terrorists struck a meaningful target. The question is, at what point does a target become meaningful?
Is it only personal when it hits our nation? Is it only personal when it hits our capital? Is it also personal when it hits our neighbors? What if it hits someone on the other side of the world?
The probing question here is how interconnected are we? When we respond with deep emotion to attacks against our country, we must ask ourselves if we were caring enough about attacks on other countries. Do we care enough? Are we like one?
I remember hearing about an American Jew, who visited his elderly aunt in Israel. She was washing dishes at the kitchen sink when the news cast came on listing the names of victims from a recent terror attack. The visitor listened for familiar names and when he heard none, he breathed a sigh of relief. No sooner had he drawn a breath, when the plate in his aunt’s hands clattered to the floor and shattered. He rushed to her side and inquired if any of those names were related to her. She was shaking with grief as she replied, “they are all related to me.” We are one.
It seems to me that we should work harder to care for each other, to feel for each other, to celebrate with each other and to cry for each other. If we mourn the lost soldiers in recent attacks on Canadian soil, we ought to muster some kind of emotion for every loss of innocent life. I know that we are wired by nature to feel closer to our own and I’m not arguing for a global village. I realize that isn’t realistic. I am encouraging us to dig a little deeper and try a little harder to care, to take it personally.
We need to stop being so objective when discussing the suffering of others. We need to stop being so rational and impersonal, when terror strikes another. If it hurts us when it strikes us, we need to find empathy for others when it strikes them. John Donne famously said, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This concept has many ramifications. For example, when you drop a napkin on the floor of a restaurant, do you pick it up yourself or do you leave it for the waiter? When you enter your House of Worship, do you set the bookcase to rights or do you leave it to the custodian?
Or course there are others that are paid to care for these things and you needn’t bother. But just because you don’t need to bother doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. If you were the waiter, you would be pleased to see someone care enough to save you a little work and clean up his own spill. If the bookcase were messy in your home, you would want it cleaned up before the custodian arrived.
To me, this is a question of how much we buy in to the world around us. Are we in a community or do we pretend to live in a vacuum when it suits us?
Taking a page out of Abraham’s life story, I wonder if we can learn a lesson. He advised his nephew against settling in Sodom telling him that the people were sinful and self-centered. (The Torah doesn’t record such a conversation, but the context of the verses suggests it.) Lot rejected his uncle’s advice and parted from him in disagreement. He couldn’t countenance Abraham’s honesty and piety. He longed from something a little more aggressive, a little more prosperous.
When Abraham was told that Lot was taken captive in war, he could have dismissed the whole thing and justified himself by saying that he had advised Lot against relocating to Sodom. He had warned him the people were immoral and sinful. The war was provoked by their greed in their refusal to pay taxes. Abraham could have washed his hands of the entire affair and said, “I told you so.”
He didn’t. He threw himself into the war with a frenzy and liberated his nephew. He treated his nephew’s incarceration as if it were his own. He had every reason to separate from him, but when Lot was in need, Abraham was right there. Placing himself in danger to save him.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing [email protected]