Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Cosmic Seismography


Fitting in some ways, sickening in others.


In a week where we read in ancient papers of rivers turning into blood and plagues and storms in one set of books, modern papers tell of the devastation befalling Haiti.

The American Jewish World Service (an organisation I have worked with for a number of years) has launched an emergency fund, more information at www.ajws.org, and they have also provided some educational material. My eye was caught by this quote, from a Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz;

‘The seismograph has taught us that a tremor in any part of the world can be felt by a sufficiently sensitive instrument everywhere in the world. The same is true of a person’s deeds. One should not think that his actions do not affect others. Everything one does in some way affects everyone else in the world.’

The tool for measuring the destructive power of earthquakes is reclaimed as a spiritual calibrator, a tool for measuring our own actions – be they destructive or constructive – how much are we moved, how much do we move. It’s an image clearly driven by a deep understanding of the Rabbinic conception of the precarious nature of our existence and the terrifying power of individual action. ‘A person should see themselves as if they, and the whole world, balanced between being half-worthy and half-guilty.’ (Rambam MT Teshuvah 3:4) Our every act tips over the scales of both man and world, in one direction or another.


And maybe we need a third seismograph also; a way to measure how we are impacted as others suffer – what tremor is set off in our own hearts when we see the devastation wrecked in a desperately poor country which has seen more than enough tragedy? Maimonides again ‘One who sees a poor person begging and hides his eyes and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as it says (Deuteronomy 15:7), “Do not harden your heart or close your hand from your poor brother.’ (MT Matanot LaEvyonim 7:2). The attitude of the hard of heart is, as again we see from this week’s parashah, the attitude of Pharaoh.


These are, perhaps, the two ways where we, as Jews and humans, are most likely to fail in our engagement with this most modern catastrophe. We might close our eyes to the suffering of others, because they are too far away or too dark skinned for us to see their devastation, or we might believe that there is nothing we can do that would make a difference. Neither belief can be countenanced. Instead we need to tip the seismographs in the direction of good and believe that in so doing, cosmically and practically we can make a difference.


Those who wish to give to a Jewish organisation, using Gift Aid are warmly encouraged to support World Jewish Relief’s Earthquake Emergency Appeal http://www.wjr.org.uk/   or call 020 8736 1250.

Shabbat Shalom

Jeremy Gordon


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