Thursday, March 17, 2022

A Letter from Poland: When Will Goodness Win Out?

In the past two weeks we have seen humanity at its worst. An invasion, purposeless and unprovoked, has left death and destruction in its path. Thousands have died, and millions have fled from their homes. A humanitarian disaster has devastated a country of 44 million people, and like most disasters, this one disproportionately affects the elderly, the young and the infirm. 

Witnessing the situation in person is profoundly upsetting. I have just returned from Poland, where I went as part of a UJA-Federation of New York Rabbinic Mission; there, we saw the refugees and heard their stories. They had made a long journey over a short distance, sometimes waiting as long as 48 hours to cross the border. One night, in the extreme cold, six people died waiting in line at one of the crossings. We visited the Medyka border crossing, where immigrants walk in on foot, and the Przemyƛl train station, where they arrive in extremely overcrowded trains. To see their faces is to see the face of catastrophe; they carry with them a few light bags, and expressions of grief, sadness, and anxiety. Because Ukraine has a general conscription of all men between 18 and 60, virtually all of the refugees are women, children and the elderly. At the makeshift Jewish Agency center in the Warsaw Novotel, we met a young woman who had fled with her two children, ages four and nine, while leaving her husband behind; tears rolled down her face as she spoke about how she worries for his welfare. And speaker after speaker impressed upon us that Poland is merely the tip of the iceberg; what we saw, as disturbing as it was, is minor compared to what is happening inside Ukraine.  

A trip like this is profoundly unsettling, and leaves one with more questions than answers. You begin to wonder how it is possible that within the family of mankind there can be such violence. Why would someone do this, and inflict so much pain and suffering? But even as this question gnaws at the heart, the mind knows the reality: violence has been with us from the very beginning, when Cain murdered his brother Abel. But the fact that violence is part of life only makes reality more painful. Dan Pagis, an Israeli poet who survived the Holocaust, wrote a powerful poem that captures the anguish one feels in confronting endless inhumanity:

here in this carload
i am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him that i

In the poem, Eve, the mother of all mankind, is pleading with her son Cain: Why are you doing this? But Eve is cut down before she can speak; violence silences her plea. Eve's shock at seeing violence arise in the world’s first family is one we share with her right now.

Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, at the beginning of Faith After the Holocaust, reminds the reader that “perhaps even more important than the question Where was God? is, Where was Man?” Berkovits discusses the role of man’s free will in understanding God’s relationship with the world, and focuses on man, who is given absolute free will to choose good and evil. Perhaps some will find the “free will defense” of God’s goodness meaningful; but in its wake, it creates a far deeper existential crisis. Since humanity is capable of such horrible evil, how can anyone ever trust in human goodness? To lose faith in mankind is no small thing, because without it, the world becomes a very dark and distressing place. Perhaps the unhappiest verse in the Tanakh is found in the eighth chapter of Genesis, which declares “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood”; man is born with a propensity to evil. This is a very distressing thought.

There are times, as we have seen in the past two weeks, when mankind’s potential for inhumanity seems limitless. But the story doesn’t end there. There is, on the other side, an army of helpers. In Poland, we saw volunteers who mobilized from around the world, and their goodness is truly unending. 

When our group arrived, we immediately went to visit the centers, shelters, kitchens and clinics serving the refugees. None of this infrastructure existed two weeks ago; it all came together spontaneously in a groundswell of volunteering. I was incredibly proud to see the exceptional job that the UJA - Federation has done on the ground in Poland; they are deeply involved in supporting and coordinating these new initiatives, and offering them financial and logistical support. The overall attitude is one of all hands on deck, with every spare space being used for refugees. Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, the historic Polish Yeshiva which in recent years has been a museum, has been turned into a shelter. Now, refugees coming to Lublin know to look for “the Yeshiva.” There, we met Agnes, a young member of the Jewish community, who'd been spending every free moment volunteering. When we asked her if working 16 hour days, 7 days a week was too difficult, she answered with a laugh that she hadn't had a chance to think about it. But Agnes came with a sense of purpose. She told us, "When I can give a child a toy and make them happy, I know I am doing work that matters."

Legions of volunteers are coming from around the world. It is astounding how many people have come to help, to do good. On the Polish side of the Medyka crossing is a long line of tents, which can only be described as an outdoor market of volunteer organizations. The booths offer the entering refugees food, groceries, clothing and baby goods. And there is more, so much more, that I saw in just 48 hours in Poland. We met with local Jewish leaders, including Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the JCC Krakow, Rabbi Avi Baumol, the Rabbi of Krakow, and Tzvi Sperber, the director of JRoots, who have dropped everything else and are working day and night to serve the refugees. There are volunteers working 24/7, offering healthcare, childcare and emotional support. We heard about two people who are trucking supplies into Ukraine, and then on the return trip, bringing elderly people back to Poland. And some volunteers just hand out candy to the children. The devotion of all of them is exceptional. When the Book of Psalms exclaims "You have made man just a little less than the divine one, and adorned him with glory and majesty," it meant people like this.

The worst and the best of mankind have been on display the past two weeks. The stark contrast between the two defies easy analysis. What truly is man? Are human beings generally good, or generally bad?

This is an issue that has been debated by rabbis, theologians, and philosophers for centuries. The Talmud relates: "For two and a half years, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: It would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. And those said: It is preferable for man to have been created than had he not been created..." The phrasing of this passage is a bit vague, but many commentaries read this text as a debate about the nature of human beings: are they good enough to be worthy of creation, or not? In other words, is mankind inherently good, or bad? In the end, the conclusion is that it would have been better for man to have not been created. The Talmud embraces pessimism, and sees humans as too flawed, fated to be bad.

This debate continues through the generations. There are Chasidic thinkers such as Rav Tzadok of Lublin who are optimists, and see the good in everything, including failure and sin; in his view every aspect of human potential is filled with greatness. The Mitnagdim, the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, had a much more pessimistic view, seeing man’s spiritual potential as profoundly limited; only in death can man’s soul first begin to flourish. And this debate is not unique to Judaism, or to theologians. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, Hobbes is a pessimist, who sees human nature as fundamentally violent and destructive, while Rousseau is an optimist, who believes that man’s inherent good is instinctive. And the debate doesn’t end there. Ask nearly anyone, and they will offer their own philosophy of human nature, pessimistic or optimistic, often colored by life experience.

There is a third view, one which sees human nature as half and half, balanced between good and evil. Every person is in an ongoing struggle; there is a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and yetzer harah, an evil inclination, and the two clash constantly. But this struggle is not just an individual struggle. The Rambam, (paraphrasing a passage in the Talmud), says:

…Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at themselves as equally balanced between innocence and guilt, and the world as equally balanced between merit and guilt. If they perform one sin, it tips their balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings about destruction. However, if they perform one mitzvah, they tip their own balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit, and bring about deliverance and salvation….

This is a powerful paradigm. Mankind is not good or evil; it is up to each of us to change the world, and tip the scale in the favor of goodness. There is a constant battle for the soul of humanity, and even the smallest good deed we do can make a difference for the entire world. 

Many of us might feel a rush of cynicism while reading this passage in the Rambam. Perhaps on a divine level the world is saved; but down on earth, things are different. Good deeds are nice, but they don’t change much; handing out candy to children won’t stop a tank. This cynicism is warranted, but the Rambam deserves a careful hearing nonetheless. What he is articulating is a religious version of the “butterfly effect.” In nature, even small actions can make a big difference, and even a butterfly flapping its wings can have an outsized impact on the weather, and theoretically even cause a tornado. The same is true of spirituality; small actions can have a major impact. One must never overlook the value of a good deed, because its impact years later can be much larger than imagined.

Before I left for Poland, several people asked me if the trip was worth my while; after all, what could a rabbi do there? I found the answer to this question on Tuesday morning. At 6:00 AM, we went back to the Warsaw Novotel to see off a group of 40 Ukrainians on their way to Israel. I had the opportunity to address them through a translator, and told them that we, the Jewish community around the world, are their family, and would be with them every step of the way. I blessed them and told them our hearts are with them. Then our group handed out chocolates and Israeli flags, and while I was doing so, got many more smiles than I thought I would. 

It isn’t always worth traveling halfway around the world for a smile. But this time it was. I was no hero, not like Agnes and all of the tireless volunteers we met. Even so, I still could bring a bit of warmth to a few refugees, and let them know that they were not alone; and that alone was worth the entire trip. 

Sometimes, a small piece of chocolate can make a big difference.

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