Learning & Doing

The relationship and reconciliation of two Jewish values

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Why do the elders have to explicitly state that they did not perpetrate the crime? Would we really have suspected them? The mishnah in Sotah (9:6) explains:

"The elders of that town washed their hands in water at the place where the neck of the heifer was broken, and they said, 'Our hands have not shed this blood neither have our eyes seen it.' But could it be that the elders of a Court were shedders of blood? [They meant], 'He came not into our hands that we should have dismissed him without sustenance, and we did not see him and leave him without escort!'"

According to the mishnah, the elders' statement is an acceptance of broad responsibility. Because they didn't see the man, they didn't provide him with food or security. But if they had seen him and had failed to provide him with those things, they would have been culpable for his fate, even though they didn't act directly against him. Knowledge of an injustice or an imminent danger creates responsibility and an obligation to act.

Case Study

Parallel events in the last two decades provide us with a case study to explore this phenomenon. The tsunami of December 2004 killed some 225,000 people and elicited the greatest outpouring of humanitarian aid in human history. We embraced our obligation to help and responded with extraordinary generosity.

But before the tsunami of 2004, there was another tsunami, in April of 1991, in Bangladesh. This disaster killed nearly 140,000 people. Few people remember it and there was little in the way of international response. Why the difference?

In 1991, we knew of our obligation to help alleviate suffering as well as we knew it in 2004. The difference was that we saw the tsunami of 2004. It struck vacation destinations filled with tourists toting video-cameras. We watched the tsunami on television. We were able to witness and "learn" the event in a palpable, visceral way. And because we saw it, like the elders in Deuteronomy, we accepted responsibility for the well-being of the victims.

In stark contrast, the tsunami in Bangladesh received limited coverage in the media. It was like the met mitzvah--something we didn't see and, therefore, something we could reasonably claim to ignore.


The lesson seems to be that in order for us to realize Akiva's proposition, that study leads to action, we need to not only accept the responsibility to act, but also expose ourselves to the circumstances in which action is necessary.

But here, too, there is a fine balance. The world is filled with suffering and injustice and immersing ourselves in it too deeply can be paralyzing. It can lead to what the essayist Annie Dillard calls "compassion fatigue"--being overwhelmed by the magnitude of a problem and thus stricken with an inability to act.

Our tradition anticipates and addresses this challenge, as well. In Pirke Avot, we read, "You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." Or as Ruth Messinger, the President of American Jewish World Service says, "The numbers are overwhelming, but we cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed."

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Aaron Dorfman

Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.