HUC-JIR students throughout the country are actively involved in relief efforts to aid those in Haiti. Students at HUC-JIR/New York donated $280 to the American Jewish World Service and $140 to Israeli Haiti Relief. Students at HUC-JIR/Los Angeles are planning a silent auction on Purim to raise funds for Haiti. Students at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati are asking for donations at services and discussions on Purim to raise funds for Haiti.
Jordi Schuster, a student at HUC-JIR, gave a sermon at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles on January 22, 2010, Parashat Bo. She said:
This week's parasha, Bo, deals in part with how we frame stories in the face of world-changing events. We read of children asking questions of their parents (indeed, three of the Four Children familiar to us from the Passover Haggadah are derived from this parasha):
• One asks, "What is this?" [Exod. 13:14]
• One asks, “What are the decrees, laws, and statutes of the Passover story?” [Deut. 6:20]
• One asks, “What is this to you?” [Exod. 12:26]
• And one does not ask at all. [Exod. 13:8]
Each child demands a different response from the parent, and, we learn, to each child we give a different narrative to give meaning to the events at hand.
We ourselves have each of these children in us. When a world-changing event strikes, one or more of them comes out. In the face of the Haiti earthquake:
• We are the child who asks “What is this?” And we get, in return, a narrative about Haiti’s culture and the individual faces of this tragedy.
• We are the child who asks, “What are the decrees, laws, and statutes at play here?” And we get, in return, a narrative about the policies that have held back Haitian progress and about what statutes should be in place for the future.
• We are the child who asks, “What does this say about you?” And we get, in a return, a narrative of self-reflection and self-critique, about what the world community and the Haitians themselves have and haven’t done through the course of history.
• And we are the child who refuses to ask, who doesn’t want to know, who turns away and goes on with our own story—the things that exist in our own lives right now and need to be taken care of today.
If we relied only on one of these children in ourselves, we would be in danger. The child in us who demands a story about policy and politics is in danger of reducing people to numbers and losing sight of the big picture. But the child in us who asks only for the big picture is in danger of feeling despair in the face of the immensity of the tragedy. The child in us who demands self-critique is in danger of blaming others for things beyond their control. But the child who doesn’t ask for a story at all is in danger of total self-absorption. We need all four of these children within us in order to gain a balanced narrative, framed by the broad picture, the politics, the reflection, and the focus on our own experience all at once.
Holding all of these children together in our heads is hard, if not impossible. But we can allow them to come in, one at a time, with help from each other:
• We need to hear about the big picture and feel the impact of what is happening to individual men, women, and children in Haiti.
• We need to make sure that our dollars are going to organizations that have impact on policies. (If you haven’t done so already, please go home and donate at ajws.org or another organization with partners in Haiti.)
• We need to make sure that we are engaging in the reflection and self-critique we need to—as individuals and as a nation—to make sure that we are neither complacently thinking that everything is fine nor self-destructively thinking that nothing is.
• We need to turn to our own lives and make sure that our own narratives are being lived the way we want them to.
• And then we need to allow these children and their questions to cycle through us again.
And what about when we are exhausted from these questions? What do we do when the images in our minds are too vivid and the voices too loud?
And what about when we are exhausted from these questions? What about when the images in our minds are too vivid and the voices too loud? Then, we can turn with gratitude to the wisdom of Shabbat: to rest and feed our souls before returning to the work of constructing the narratives we need in order to mend the breaks in our sometimes broken world. May we blessed this Shabbat with rest from the week that has passed before we turn to the week ahead, and again engage in the asking and answering of questions and in the job of working toward the repair of the world.
Miriam Terlinchamp, a student at HUC-JIR, is a Kol Tzedek Fellow with AJWS (American Jewish World Service) and she travels to different communities speaking on their behalf. Miriam was in Phoenix last weekend and spoke in two different congregations, Temple Chai and Congregation Beth El, as well as at the Phoenix Federation in order to raise awareness and funds. In her sermon, she explained:
There are times when the horrors of the world cut through everything and allow us to feel the connection we share with every human being. With the Tsunami five years ago, so many of us donated funds, collected goods, and even traveled to volunteer. With Katrina, on our own shores, I imagine that most of this room’s hearts gravitated towards the needs and suffering of the people of New Orleans. Now, in Haiti, motivated by the pictures and stories of the tragedies that continue to happen post-earthquake many of us feel compelled to act.
But, what can I do? I think this is the question that stops most people. We think what can I do? Give a little money, make a phone call, big deal, what’s the difference? It becomes convenient to be overwhelmed by all that needs to be done and it results in inaction. However, we do not have the luxury to be silent because issues feel too complex or events too far away.
Our tradition has a lot to say about boundaries and decision-making. We tell the story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart all of the time (and in this week’s Torah portion, BO, too!). Where was the line in Pharaoh’s proverbial sand, where he finally gave in? Was it the Locusts? Was it the plague of darkness?
Pharaoh had to lose the most precious thing in the world to him, his child in order to allow the Israelites to leave. It took losing everything to break his behavior and finally act. And then. Even losing everything was not enough. We will read about it in next week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh never really breaks free- he stays in his prison of a hardened heart-running after the Israelite slaves as they ran towards freedom, only to have his soldiers and his power swallowed up in the sea. Pharaoh’s hardened heart traps him in a cycle of always responding the same way to the tragedies that happen around him.
This can be our fate as well. When we doubt our own power to make a difference, when we do not trust ourselves to break our own cycles or how we react to things- the world does not change, the plagues just keep coming and we risk losing everything. What we can learn from Pharaoh is the necessity of breaking the human tendency to think that we cannot make difference, specifically in places of substantial global poverty where the work seems so big. We must learn to trust ourselves and trust in our power to make a difference.