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March 23, 2006

Looking Beyond Our Neighborhood
By Irwin Huberman

In the beginning . . . . the Torah reminds us not only to love our neighbor, but also to extend compassion to those in need throughout the world.

In recent months the television news has been dominated by a seemingly endless stream of images from New Orleans to Pakistan, as we witness the devastation caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters. It is often hard to grasp the significance of these events. For many, the non-stop images, the casualty totals and the ongoing requests for assistance have led to a feeling of numbness and powerlessness. It is often too easy to retreat and to turn a blind eye.

One of the most important arguments in Judaism, based on this week’s parashah, takes place in the Talmud as Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai debate what is the most important principle of Judaism. It was Rabbi Akiva’s contention that ‘ve-ahavta l’rayecha kamocha,’ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18) is the most important principle. But his counterpart, Ben Azzai, disagreed. He contended that a portion of this week’s parashah, Parashat Bereshit, holds the key. The Torah reminds us as it prepares to list the descendents of Adam, ‘This is the book of the generations of man . . . in the image of God man was fashioned.’ (Genesis 5:1).

Ben Azzai contended that the concept of loving your neighbor as yourself, although commendable, is limiting. In our communities and in our neighborhoods, we tend to focus on our immediate network. We have a natural tendency to love those closest to us. Indeed, our communities, our synagogues, our families and friends deserve our attention. As it is common to say, ‘We watch each other’s back.’ We strive to treat each other with the respect we want others to give us.

But there is a danger in this. Being human, we often reflect our own biases, disappointments and subjective views of the world. The respect we give to our neighbor as ourselves also has the ability to limit us.

And while we do so the world continues to struggle. Late last year the world quickly rallied to assist those people affected by the tsunami. Last August people worldwide gathered forces to send funds, clothing and food to support those in New Orleans and Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And most recently we have been asked to dig even deeper to help the hundreds of thousands of victims of earthquakes in Pakistan.

In an age where CNN provides us with instant images from all over the world, it seems the crises are never ending. We see images of the deceased and we are quoted casualty numbers in the tens of thousands. This week’s parashah reminds us that these numbers are made up of Hashem’s individual sparks, each one unique and precious.

The Ashrei prayer, quoting Psalm 145, tells us ‘Tov Adonai la-kol, v’rachamav al kol ma’asav,’ ‘God is good to all and God’s compassion extends to all living things.’ Loving your neighbor as yourself is vital, but we must also remember to extend our neighborhoods to all humanity, no matter how overwhelmed and powerless at times we may feel.

Let us all remind ourselves on this, the beginning of the Torah cycle, that we share a common beginning, a common responsibility and ultimately a common fate. As Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, ‘We all share the kinship of humanity and the capacity of compassion.’

Ben Azzai’s reference to Bereshit should encourage us not to be limited by the borders of our own immediate experience. As difficult as it is to watch world suffering, we are reminded that we share a common ancestry, and a responsibility to dig deeper to repair a world that often suffers in places that may seem foreign. We must look at events as if they were happening to ourselves and to our neighbors.

As we are reminded in this week’s parashah, we are all descended from Adam, and we are all sparks of Hashem.