Although this short article is not the place to address all aspects of Jewish attitudes towards the non-Jewish community and helping them in times of need, the spectrum of these ideas spans centuries of crises, as well times of peace. While in Ghana three ideas filled me with pride and positively influenced my attitudes. The first stems from the Torah’s creation story which marks the concept of humanity being formed b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. Each person, regardless of their creed, actions, wealth, education or family ancestry, has the spark of Godliness which needs to be cared for and treated with dignity and respect.
The second being that the Torah demands of us no less than 36 times to love the stranger, widow and orphan. By contrast, the Torah states only three times not to mix milk and meat. This is a clear calling to the Jewish nation to welcome and accept responsibility towards those less fortunate.
In Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s (1816-1893) classic introduction to his commentary on the Torah, he addresses tolerance and compassion that the patriarchs and matriarchs expressed towards their neighbours. Surely these neighbours had opinions, values and societies contrary to the vision of ethical monotheism. Rabbi Berlin writes that
Now we understand the reason for the unique praise attributed to our patriarchs [and matriarchs]: not only were they righteous and pious and not only did they love GOD to their fullest abilities, but, in addition, they were upright. That is to say, they accustomed themselves to deal straightforwardly with other people, not only because it is honest to do so, but also because they realized that this positive way of relating to people bestows the continuity of existence on creation. Even idol worshippers, despite their low and despicable spiritual level, were treated with love and concern for their well-being by our patriarchs [and matriarchs]. This is exemplified by the great extent to which Abraham, our father, applied himself, through intensive prayers and appeals, to gain the preservation of wicked Sodom. Abraham beseeched GOD to spare Sodom even though he hated the people and their leaders to the fullest degree, because of the wickedness that saturated their very being. Nevertheless, he wanted them to continue to exist. Thankfully, I left an area stricken with malaria and yellow fever without getting any bugs or even too many bites, but I brought home a different type of infection. This is the highly contagious itch to do more and increase our efforts for the proverbial stranger, widow and orphan.
To find out more about volunteering in Ghana, please visit: http://tzedek.org.uk/volunteering/the-ghana-project/