In a message I sent to our Beit Midrash email list this week, I asked people to contribute to our UJA's Emergency Relief Fund for humanitarian aid, to be administered via the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
As I wrote the request, I remembered a brief exchange I had with a congregant about a dozen years ago. In the wake of another natural disaster, I had encouraged people to contribute to an aid campaign. My congregant said to me, "We need to use our money to help our own community; the outside world isn't going to help us, when we need it." He was factually correct; I don't imagine that the Nepalese will build bomb shelters in Israel (although Israeli relations with Nepal aren't bad), or support Jewish schools in Toronto.
I was also reminded of another congregant, who noted to me that the Torah's commandment to love others applies specifically to your fellow Jew (Vayikra 19:18) or to a non-Jew who comes to Judaism (ibid. 19:33). He, too, was correct.
I feel that both of my interlocutors were missing a key point, though.
It is true that the nations of the world will likely not come to view us as family, even when Israeli aid arrives in the form of a mission more than double the size of any other. And it is true that the Torah limits love - the state in which we identify with others, seeing them as part of ourselves, loving them "as ourselves" - specifically to those with whom we share the most intimate values and beliefs. [See, for example, Rambam to Avot 1:6, who specifies sharing of values as the highest form of kinship.] Nonetheless, our tolerance for suffering shouldn't depend on the identity of the sufferer. How can our pure soul not writhe in pain when it witnesses others in agony? How can it not be personally offended by the existence of unremedied suffering?
This is why we act on behalf of those who will not reciprocate and who are not "ours". As I once heard Rabbi Baruch Weintraub note, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a) writes that when we are sensitive to the pain of others, when we are personally offended by the suffering of others, then we are obligated to act.
Our sages taught us this lesson of action in numerous ways. They criticized Noach for failing to reach out sufficiently to his neighbours, and praised Avraham for attempting to influence the fate of his. (Bereishit Rabbah 30:9-10, although one could also read this source as a function of love for G-d) Rambam wrote that we dare not fall into cruelty; we aspire to the sensitivity displayed by G-d, regarding whom King David wrote, "His mercy is upon all of His creations." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avadim 9:8 and Hilchot Melachim 10:12) Our Sages wanted us to understand that even when we don't share a common identity with others, we do share a common humanity with them.
I have made a contribution; I hope that the readers of this blog will be able to do so as well.