Why is Israel helping Haiti?

The recent Israeli intervention in Haiti gives everyone of us something to feel proud about Israel. Despite the relentless efforts of the international community to demonize Israel before the nations of the world, the State of Israel continues to act as a beacon of light and hope for so many impoverished peoples of the world. Nowhere is this more visible than in the ravaged country of Haiti.

Many folks may not realize that Israel always provides international relief to countries faced with the aftermath of a natural catastrophe. Whether it is an earthquake in Mexico or other parts of Central and South America, or in Turkey and in central China (which I personally experienced)—Israel is always there willing to lend its helping hand. These special disaster rescue units have always done exemplary work—whether the international community recognizes it or not. Then again, Israeli aid and medical teams were also call into action in Thailand and Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami there, when they set up a field hospital and also to help to find and identify victims of the tragedy, many of whom were decomposed beyond recognition.

Welfare minister Isaac Hertzog of Israel announced today that Israel plans to adopt orphans from the Haiti earthquake. He observed, “Haiti was one of the countries that supported us on November 29, 1947, and now it’s our turn to support them.”

The urgency of the moment demands that other countries also get involved with providing new homes for these poor children. UNICEF warned that the orphans are especially vulnerable because of the dangers of trafficking minors and sexual exploitation.

One of the best things Israel did was set up the only functional hospital in Haiti—a feat not even the United States or the other Western countries managed to do.  Although this hospital consists of army tents with folding beds, the field hospital has advanced surgical facilities, X-ray and imagery machines, and a full staff of professional doctors and nurses from Israel’s top military and civilian hospitals.

Some critics will always take the attitude that Israel has an ulterior motive: it wishes to improve its public image; even if this may partially be the case, so what? Why not ask that same question regarding any country or individual that chooses to get involved?  In the final analysis, lives are being saved.  Isn’t that what counts? Judaism has always stressed the importance of deeds over creeds. We experience our faith–not by talking about it, but by living it.

As we study the book of Exodus this month, the experiences of our ancestors continues to shape our lives. Memory in the Bible is never something that is passive; it is a call to action. To remember the Exodus is to live by its lessons. You see, God demands that we too must become liberators and redeemers.  Biblical theology does not begin the higher academies of Jewish learning, it begins in the streets; the Torah is constantly exhorting us to remember what it was like to be a slave in an oppressive society without the possibility of hope.  From this perspective, a true theology of the Torah is inextricably related to acts that positively transforms the lives of its communities.  Ancient Israelite society was built on a concept of mutual aid where every citizen must take personal responsibility for the social condition of his or her world (Cf. Deut. 15:7-16).

Note that nowhere does the Torah explicitly promise an afterlife for those follow its precepts. Rather, the realization of the Heavenly Kingdom demands that its citizens do whatever it takes to create a social order that will look after the needs of each of its citizens. The world of Eternity and the temporal world we inhabit intersect in the realm of the interpersonal. Faith in God is never an abstraction; the hand of God paradoxically resembles the human hand. With each act of kindness to the stranger and the indigent, God’s own hand become enfleshed.

There is a charming rabbinic teaching that accentuates this point.[1]

Rabbi Akiba and Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor of Judea had a discussion. “Turnus Rufus asks Akiba, ‘If your God truly loves the poor, then why does He not provide for them? To cite a parable, suppose a human king became  angry with his slave, imprisoned him and ordered that he was not to be provided with food and drink; and then a person goes and feeds him and offers him to drink. When the king hears of it, will he not be angry with him?’ Akiba replied, ‘I will offer you a more appropriate parable: Suppose a human king became angry with his son, imprisoned him and ordered that he was not to be provided with food or drink; and then a person goes and feeds him and offers him to drink. When the king hears of it, will he not reward him?’ We are called God’s children, as it is said, ‘You are the children of the Lord your God’ (Deut. 14:1).”

Akiba then cites the following passage that illustrates this lesson:

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed,
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

(Isaiah 58:5-8).

[1] BT Baba Batra 10a.

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