Monday, January 10, 2005

Last Saturday morning, we held a service for the victims of the tsunami. We were addressed by The Honourable Irwin Cotler, Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada; Mr. Alain Bonneau, Honourary Consul of Sri Lanka; Mr. Sanat Kaul, the Indian Representative to ICAO; Mr. Aras Martono, the Indonesian Representative to ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization; Mr. Marc Attali, Consul General of Israel; Mrs. Ramani Balendra, President of the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Tamil Congress; in attendence were Mr. Bashir Hussain, Executive Director, Alliance of South Asian communities; Mr. Eddie Wolkove, Co-President (with Mr. Hussain) of Muslim-Jewish Dialogue of Montreal; Ms. Laya Alles, Sri Lanka Canada Association of Montreal; Mr. Perry Balendra, President of the Quebec Coalition for Peace in Sri Lanka; Mr. Manjit Singh, chair of the Montreal Interfaith Council a director of the Canadian Sikh Council, and Mr. Jeff Boro, President of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region.

This is the op-ed I wrote about this:

A Moment of Grace

It was not your average synagogue service. On this particular Saturday morning, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists gathered together in my Montreal synagogue for a service on behalf of the victims of the Asian tsunami. Diplomats from India, Indonesia, Israel and Sri Lanka, as well as the Canadian Minister of Justice, all offered words of sympathy. And indeed, solidarity was in the air. Representatives of the Sinhalese and Tamils both attended, and a representative of the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, thanked the Jewish community for their efforts on behalf of the disaster victims. You could say it was a morning of strange bedfellows; in actuality, it was a true moment of grace.

While it is unfortunate that this solidarity is the product of a disaster, it is not unusual that it is so. Human behavior changes dramatically under pressure. Much like the old adage that “there are no atheists in foxholes”, disasters have the unique ability to unite antagonists in a common cause. As George Elliot, at the end of The Mill on the Floss, notes: “What quarrel, what harshness, what unbelief in each other can subsist in the presence of a great calamity…?”

That is why when we observe the horrors of this tsunami, we transcend the foolish pettiness that is the foundation of human enmity. The sight of naked human suffering stirs feelings of compassion. We all understand what Ramani (a member of the Sri Lankan community who addressed us) felt, when following the tsunami, she started calling family members in a panic to see how they were. We immediately connect with those who are homeless, and have lost their life savings. As a father, I was overwhelmed as I saw parents searching for their children, hoping against hope that they are still alive. A report on CNN told about parents going to the beach, hoping they could at least recover their children’s bodies for burial; as I watched, I was overtaken by tears.

The prophet Malachi asks “Are we not all children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God? Then why are we faithless to each other?”. This indeed is a difficult riddle. How is it that humans can hate each other so much? Yet for much of history, humans are the authors of enormous devastation. The Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur are all the products of human evil. Frequently, the intensity of hatred is the greatest between those groups that are most closely related. How do we forget that we all have the same father?

In the aftermath of this tsunami, we remember again that all human beings are brothers and sisters. Skin color, ethnic background and religious affiliation don’t change the fact that we are all part of one family. That is why people all around the world are coming forward to help the victims. With this disaster came a worldwide moment of grace.

Yes, catastrophe creates compassion. No, it’s not a good reason to hope for catastrophes. We would be better off if we could learn the lessons of solidarity in a more comfortable classroom. But it is a reminder of how as humans we have the ability to determine our response to whatever life may send our way. We can choose callousness or compassion. The response I saw in my synagogue, and the response I see coming from around the world, is one of caring and concern. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll truly recognize that we’re from the same family.

Now, I’m too cynical to believe things have changed much. I know that tomorrow, a new news story, preferably one that involves celebrities and/or a sex scandal, will push this tsunami off the front pages. (Indeed, the Consul General of Sri Lanka specifically asked us to continue to remember the victims of the tsunami, even after the media has forgotten them.). Just like after 9/11, we’ll forget our newfound ideals and return to small-mindedness.

Even so, a brief moment of grace can make an enduring difference. It allows us to glimpse what mankind could be like at its best. And that glimpse, of a world a bit too perfect for today, can still nourish the idealist inside all of us. If we open our hearts just a little, it can continue to remind us to love more, to give more, and to care more, even in times of tranquility.

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