What is the hardest faith of all?
RABBI LEVI AVTZON
Let me be clear that the above is not in reference to faith in Hashem. I’m talking about a tougher faith, perhaps, faith in the goodness and potential of our fellow human beings.
The story is told that a certain sage who survived the holocaust was asked how he could believe in G‑d after seeing what he saw. He responded, “Who else do you think I should believe in? Man? Am I to put my faith and destiny into the human being who could gas millions or watch the atrocity in silence?”
Belief in our fellow human being, not as a g-d, but as someone with the capacity for redemption and kindness, seems to be a bigger leap of faith than to believe in the existence and goodness of the creator.
Allow me to quote from an incredible 2008 TED talk from Samantha Power (later to be United States ambassador to the United Nations):
“I spent the better part of a decade looking at American responses to mass atrocity and genocide. I’d like to start by sharing with you one moment that to me sums up what there is to know about American and democratic responses to mass atrocity.
“That moment came on April 21 1994, 14 years ago, almost, in the middle of the Rwandan genocide, in which 800 000 people would be systematically exterminated by the Rwandan government and some extremist militia. On April 21, the New York Times reported that somewhere between 200 000 and 300 000 people had already been killed in the genocide. It was in the paper, not on the front page. It was a lot like the Holocaust coverage, it was buried in the paper. Rwanda itself was not seen as newsworthy, and amazingly, genocide itself was not seen as newsworthy.
“But on April 21, a wonderfully honest moment occurred. That was that an American congresswoman named Patricia Schroeder from Colorado met a group of journalists. One of the journalists said to her, ‘What’s up? What’s going on in the US government?’ Two hundred thousand to 300 000 people have just been exterminated in the past couple of weeks in Rwanda. It’s two weeks into the genocide at that time, but of course, at that time you don’t know how long it’s going to last. And the journalist said, ‘Why is there so little response out of Washington? Why no hearings, no denunciations, no people getting arrested in front of the Rwandan embassy or in front of the White House? What’s the deal?’
“And she said – she was so honest – she said, ‘It’s a great question. All I can tell you is that in my congressional office in Colorado and my office in Washington, we’re getting hundreds and hundreds of calls about the endangered ape and gorilla population in Rwanda, but nobody is calling about the people. The phones just aren’t ringing about the people.’”
I remember hearing that talk a few years ago, and it has haunted me ever since. I felt a similar heart-drop when reading online a major headline about ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) destroying ancient artefacts in Iraq and Syria, and yet on the same day, dozens of murders took place and they were relegated to the bottom of the page in small type. Artefact destruction is, indeed, terrible, but when it seems to overshadow the heinousness of murder of human life, I believe that we have lost a fundamental value.
On Rosh Hashanah, we commemorate the creation of Adam and Eve. What’s interesting is that we don’t commemorate the new year on the first day of creation when the Torah tells us that the world was born into existence, but rather we memorialise the sixth day, the final day of creation when the first human beings were born.
Until the creation of Adam and Eve – human beings with free choice – G-d was a king without a people, a father without a child, and a lover without a beloved. This is the day that life truly began on earth.
Yes, it’s a Torah value to respect mother earth, to respect the animal kingdom. And yes, we have often failed at this task and we must do better. But when we hear warped ideas about the human being as the destroyer of this world, and the fact that the world would be better off without us, it’s a false and dangerous narrative.
False, because G-d has placed us here for a reason, and as a collective, we have done – and continue to do – much more good than evil.
Dangerous, because when we lose faith in humanity, human life becomes cheaper than gorillas and ancient buildings.
Each of us is created in the image of the creator, and is full of overwhelming goodness and beauty. Our job is to reveal and activate the goodness instead of highlighting and magnifying the foibles and weaknesses. We can and ought to look at each other with a good eye and an open heart.
In the South African climate, we are blessed to live in a culture of kindness and forgiveness, surrounded by some of the sweetest and happiest people on earth. Yet, often we find that the conversation and sentiment is driven by the actions of a minority of individuals, which then paints our perception of reality in faded and doomed colours.
To believe in the inherent goodness of each other is not a fool’s naivete. It is an act of braveness in the face of cynicism. Yes, we must be careful and cautious, and keep up our guard, but in no way should that warp our perception of our fellow seven billion people all created in the image of their creator.
Wishing you and yours a good and sweet year.
- Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the newly appointed rabbi at Linksfield Shul, a presenter on ChaiFM, and a writer on the Judaism website Chabad.org.