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The Political Controversy Surrounding the Haiti Relief Efforts

A woman is rescued alive from rubble several days after the Haiti eathquake (Wikipedia)
A woman is rescued alive from rubble several days after the Haiti eathquake (Wikipedia)

And once again they're bickering.

According to a story printed in last Sunday's Washington Post, the geopolitical landscape is once again embroiled in controversy. This time, the tensions revolve around the global response to the Haitian catastrophe. To quote the article:

"There were growing tensions over which country's planes were allowed to land [in Haiti] first, with each nation insisting its aid flight was a priority, according to an official involved in the relief operation.

"France, Brazil and Italy were said to be upset, and the Red Cross said one of its planes was diverted to Santo Domingo, the capital of neighboring Dominican Republic.

"The French government became so annoyed when a plane with an emergency field hospital was turned back Friday that foreign minister Bernard Kouchner lodged a protest with the State Department..."

Following the colossal tragedy that has afflicted us, the heart yearns for some light. Undoubtedly, the international reaction to the crisis has provided just that.

After millennia of non-stop warring and bickering between nations, with only self-interest at the heart of virtually all the conflicts, we've arrived at the day where countries are up in arms—over what? Over the right to come to the aid of a poor and helpless nation that is of absolutely no strategic interest to anyone! Militaries worldwide are mobilized—for what? To rush to the assistance of a devastated people with whom they have nothing in common, other than the fact that they are all G‑d's creations!

One more point:

Haiti's devastation is beyond what the mind can fathom. The enormity of the numbers simply can't be processed. According to the Haitian Interior Minister, the disaster claimed between 100,000 and 200,000 lives (with many more dying each day from injuries, infections, etc.). 250,000 people sustained injuries, and as many as one million Haitians are now homeless. Altogether, three million people were directly affected by the quake.

On the flip side, according to the United Nations, as of this past Wednesday (eight days after the quake), more than 121 people have been pulled alive from the rubble. And the search for survivors still continues.

One hundred and twenty one reasons to be happy, versus the too-many-to-contemplate reasons to mourn.

Which raises the question: Would it really make a difference whether the death toll is 150,000 or 150,121?

Think how much effort is being expended on this recovery effort. How much easier it would be to just start the rebuilding, and bulldoze away all those piles of rubble and start anew.

But every time I check the news, they report on the intensive recovery effort, proudly trumpeting every new survivor found. Because it's not just about a nation afflicted, a faceless crowd—it's about individuals. Every one of whom is priceless.

We're finally getting it. The world understands the concept that we're all one, all G‑d's creations, and we are all mutually responsible for each other.

We're understanding what the real purpose of a military is.

We're understanding the value of every individual.

I hope and pray that G‑d is watching all this with a big smile. Surely this outpouring of care, love and brotherhood will elicit from Him revealed blessings—for Haiti and all the nations and individuals who've so helplessly rushed to the rescue (personally, or through contributing to the relief effort).

There is no more need for earthquakes or other natural disasters. We've proven our point. It's time now for G‑d to finish off the process of global goodness and harmony that we've started—and send us the Moshiach to bring an end to all suffering.

And I say, au contraire.

The pundits describe the Democratic Party as "reeling" in the wake of Republican Scott Brown's stunning victory in the Massachusetts special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the passing of Ted Kennedy. This "imperils" President Barack Obama's agenda for health care and other domestic issues, because now the Republicans have 41 seats in the Senate, which means that Mr. Obama no longer has a filibuster-proof Senate. To quote a CNN news piece: "It is a mighty blow for a president who just one year ago seemed unbreakable, unstoppable, and unbeatable."

On the surface, these assessments appear correct. But upon further reflection, it seems to me that Tuesday's election has the potential to truly be a positive watershed moment for this administration.

I believe that both parties champion worthwhile ideas (for more on this topic, see Left or Right?); though at times their respective valid values conflict. As evidenced by the issue at hand: It's certainly important to ensure that every citizen has access to adequate medical care—whether or not he or she can personally afford it—but it's also important to assure the continued high quality of the nation's healthcare, and that companies are not taxed out of business to cover the costs.

When both parties have a voice, the result can and should be reaching a middle ground that satisfies all sensibilities. A healthcare reform bill that ensues will be a better one, one that takes into account so many more considerations, one that has a far greater likelihood of succeeding.

Ultimately, the president's laudable goal of providing universal healthcare has taken a step forward yesterday—provided that Mr. Obama welcomes the infusion of new ideas and views this as an opportunity to be utilized, not an obstacle to overcome.

As is the case with so many challenges that we encounter, if we look a bit deeper, we can perceive that they have the potential to make us stronger and wiser—if only we can zoom in on the positive.

No other than G‑d Himself provides an example of this idea in action.

Before all was created by the word of His mouth, He had the only vote. Forget about filibusters—there was no one and nothing to have any opinion at all regarding any agenda He might have had.

And G‑d decided that he wanted voters. Voters who could actually decide to countermand His agenda. For this reason, He didn't suffice with creating angels and other spiritual beings—entities that respond to all He says and does with a resounding "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

The objective of creation is the human race, whose members have the ability to decide that they are the "opposition"; who can form their own parties and dissent or filibuster at will.

G‑d doesn't want to impose His will on us; He wants us to vote for His agenda of our own volition. The truest truth can never be forced upon others.

This is a leadership modality that Mr. Obama should feel privileged to emulate...

Musings on the Haitian Earthquake

The earth shrugged, reducing a large city to ruins. The violent shuddering crumbled shanty and presidential palace alike, instantly killing untold thousands, and leaving behind many more grieving, homeless, and provisionless friends and relatives.

The ripples caused by the seismic tremors shook into action compassionate individuals and nations around the globe. Undoubtedly the silver lining behind this cataclysm is the resulting outpour of humanitarian aid streaming into the devastated nation of Haiti.

And for many a person of faith, the earthquake triggered a personal spiritual upheaval. A tragedy of such unthinkable proportions raises theological questions. Why does G‑d allow such suffering? To quote our Patriarch Abraham, "Will the Judge of all the world not do justice?"

The ground. Another one of those things we take for granted. When visiting a city, we admire the structures, the architecture, the locals, the cuisine, the culture... No one returns from vacation with the camera's memory card full of photos of the ground. Yet, it constitutes the base upon which everything rests. And as we sadly saw this past Tuesday, if there's a fault line somewhere deep down there, all the beauty that is above ground can come toppling down in a moment.

The spiritual analogue seems clear. The spiritual-minded individual spends his or her life developing beautiful and sophisticated structures. A beautiful building to house love for G‑d. Another mansion inhabited by compassion for all of G‑d's creations. A multi-roomed home for various virtuous values, and an intellectual edifice built out of an – albeit limited – understanding of G‑d's workings.

And then there's the ground upon which all these structures are situated. The spiritual soil consists of simple faith in G‑d and His all-encompassing goodness, and unwavering commitment to observing His instructions. There is nothing glamorous or sophisticated about these ground-qualities; they are accessible to scholar and simpleton alike. But only when the ground is secure and faultless, are all the buildings safe and secure.

My 86-year-old grandmother, Pearl Schulkind – may she live many years in good health – is the most remarkable woman I've ever met. (My wife, my grandmother's staunchest admirer, surely won't mind me saying that...)

She was born in Cracow, Poland, where she received virtually no Jewish education. She doesn't understand the prayers that she faithfully says every day. She lost both parents and all her siblings to the Nazis, may their names be blotted out, and she herself survived two years in Auschwitz and then the infamous death march. She once related to me how she witnessed a trainload of Jewish children being set afire and burned alive.

After the war she married my grandfather of blessed memory. She lost her first child to meningitis and more recently a grandson to a congenital disorder. She's been widowed twice.

If anyone has a right to question and complain, it would be her. But her faith in G‑d and commitment to Judaism has never faltered a moment.

Her advanced age is finally making its mark. Her spirit is strong, but her body is frail. Before this past Yom Kippur, I encouraged her to consider not fasting on the holy day. Perhaps she should consult with her doctor and rabbi... Her response was unequivocal: "On Yom Kippur a Jew fasts. Period." And fast she did.

And her mantra is (an English-Yiddish hybrid): "M'tur nisht complainen"—"One is not allowed to complain..."

The ground she inhabits is without a fault. I can only hope to emulate her example.

The questions are there. To attempt to answer them would be a pursuit in futility.

Is our ground stable enough to ensure that these questions don't topple all we've built?

One Rabbi's Response to the Haitian Earthquake of 2010

It's hard enough to comprehend the significance of what a 7.0 magnitude earthquake does to a densely populated area. It's even harder to imagine what this means when most of the people affected are already living in sub-standard conditions.

Haiti is figured to be the poorest country in the Americas. Something like a third of its GNP is foreign aide. It's been wracked by disease, war, hurricanes and, now, earthquake. It's unreal. Anyone who says that they can understand it clearly doesn't understand it at all.

Most of us will react with compassion. We will feel sympathy for the millions displaced from their homes, searching for lost relatives and left without access to even the most meager resources. Some of us will find somewhere to quickly donate online to help in the relief effort.

And then there are those – a very, very small number actually – who will take it upon themselves to interpret for us the meaning of the disaster. They will try to extract moral lessons from what happened. Perhaps they will find some reason to explain why the Haitian people deserve such pitifully bad luck. They did the same thing after Katrina and after the Tsunami. They are quick to figure out why people suffer and to hold up the victims as a frightening example of G‑d's potential wrath to us as well.

Please, do not listen to those who exploit human suffering for rhetorical flair.

They will tell you that G‑d wants to tell us something and that if we don't learn from this, there will be more calamity.

I know this because this is how they respond to every tragedy that grabs the world's attention.

What they are loath to admit is that we have no idea why this happened. We have no idea why G‑d did this. There are no answers that we can understand.

How then are we of faith to react? I mean, in addition to offering our help and our sympathy. How are we supposed to look at something like this?

Just this past Saturday, in Jewish communities all over the world, we read the first portion of the Book of Exodus—a portion which ends with Moses' complaint to G‑d: "Why have You done bad to Your people?"

The answer to this question comes at the beginning of this week's Torah reading, in which G‑d basically answers that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, also had cause to question Him but never did. In other words, G‑d doesn't answer the question. Rather, He tells Moses that from another perspective – the perspective of the Patriarchs – it would not even occur to ask such a question.

It's actually quite remarkable. G‑d never answered the question.

I wonder if that's because G‑d knew that Moses wouldn't be able to understand the answer... or because He knew that he would?

It is not for us to be comfortable with human suffering. It is certainly not for us to rationalize it away or, worse yet, to use false piety to audaciously explain the unexplainable.

Does G‑d have a plan? Does He know what He is doing? Yes.

Are we able to explain what that is? If we do, we show that we have not only lost our hearts but also our minds.

The most recent political flap involves Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; it has come to light that in the course of the latest presidential campaign he made a racially insensitive remark regarding President Obama.

Reid has already apologized to the President, who has accepted the apology and expressed his desire to close the book on the episode. Similarly, his fellow Democrats, the Congressional Black Caucus, and many other liberal politicians and political bodies have come out in support of Reid.

On the other side of the political aisle, politicians are not at all eager to close the book on the issue. Citing the calls for the resignation of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2002 after he too made a racially insensitive remark, they now accuse the Democrats of a double standard.

Who's in the right here? I'd like to introduce some Torah-based arguments in support of all the opinions involved—and then I'll ask you to decide.

Reid Should Stay on the Job

The Torah exhorts us to "love our fellow as ourselves." The Torah is not only quantifying how great the love for our fellow must be – as much as we love ourselves – but is also explaining the nature of this love. We are all aware of our personal deficiencies and flaws, yet we continue to deeply care for and love ourselves. This because we don't define ourselves based on our mistakes; we look at the larger picture, we also see our many redeeming values. It is in this same light that we must also see our fellows and their shortcomings. We mustn't define them by their weaknesses, but by their strengths.

Harry Reid has an exemplary record in civil rights issues. Let us not hastily dismiss him based on one indiscretion. Let's remember that no person is perfect—even our greatest leaders made mistakes.

And he's apologized.

Reid Must Go!

His apology may have been sincere, and perhaps he's an altogether good guy, but actions must carry consequences. Once a person sincerely regrets a crime, he may be reaccepted by society and G‑d—but the courts are still duty-bound to enforce the appropriate penalty. And no one gets off paying a speeding ticket by claiming that they observe the speed limit 99% of the time.

This is all the more true with regards to leaders, who are held to a higher standard. Moses can certainly attest to this: despite his monumental accomplishments, he was barred from leading the nation into the Land of Israel due to a relatively minor error in judgment on his part, when he struck a rock rather than speaking to it as he was instructed to do.

We forgive you Harry, but someone else has to lead the Senate.

They're All a Bunch of Hypocrites!

Both the conservatives and liberals are completely unqualified to give an opinion with any objectivity or legitimacy—because of their respective hate and love for Reid. Only one consideration – the aggrandizement of their party and platform – lies at the core of any opinion they express on the matter.

Here's what Maimonides writes with regards to a judge who harbors a bias (Laws of Courts 23:6):

"It is forbidden for a judge to adjudicate a case if one of the parties is a friend, even if he's not a very close friend, or if he dislikes one of the parties, even if he's not an enemy who wishes him evil. Rather, both the disputants should be equal in the judges' eyes and hearts."

I'm not sure what should happen with Reid; but I've sure had enough of hearing all these self-righteous opinioneers!

You're Right, and so is He

Biases aside, both sides do bring legitimate points to the discussion table (as explained above). There are times when we can overlook a fault, and there are times when we cannot. Instead of shouting matches, we should be having real discussion about the merits of the arguments, recognizing that there are many different ways to view any given subject, and then perhaps the final decision should be made by a (relatively) impartial body empowered to adjudicate such issues.

What do you think?

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...