Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and scholar, wrote that there are eight levels of charity, each greater than the next one. The greatest is to help out a fellow Jew, and the list goes on to the less impressive gestures of “giving inadequately but cheerfully” and then “grudgingly.”
With all due respect to Maimonides, I think that list needs some updating.
When I was very young, I remember standing in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen, watching her light what seemed to be countless numbers of yahrzeit candles. She lined them all up on the metal Youngstown sink cabinet, stood over them, covered her face and wept. I’d never seen my Oma cry like that, and it’s an image seared into my memory.
Later in life, I learned that my family (and I assume many others) used the anniversary of Kristallnacht — before there was a Yom HaShoah — to commemorate the far too many relatives we lost during the Holocaust. No one knew the exact dates or circumstances of their deaths, but even then I understood that both of my parents and my grandparents managed to escape the horrors that befell those I never met.
For most of my young life, the seldom-shared stories of my family’s exodus from Germany seemed rather otherworldly to me. Even today, after decades of reading, watching and listening to Holocaust testimonies and histories, I cannot fathom what it was like for my family or anyone else who lived through it. How could I?
According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, there are an unprecedented 70.8 million forcibly displaced people around the world today, among which 25.9 million of them are refugees. It’s a mind-boggling number. Millions of people around the globe are running from war, persecution, violence, famine and all kinds of deplorable human rights violations.
They are simply, desperately, seeking a safe place to live.
How many yahrzeit candles will line the homes of millions to come, or worse yet, how many millions will die with no one left to honor their memories, simply because of who they are or where they live?
I cannot fathom what it is like for these people. How can I?
In ways, my family has a lucky story, among the millions of tragic stories. My parents gave us a safe, Jewish home, and we were not only free to be openly Jewish but taught to wear that heritage proudly. I cannot imagine how my parents and grandparents, after everything they witnessed, felt watching us grow up without fear of our own. How can I?
The majority of displaced people today are not Jews. In fact, the majority seeking refuge are from Muslim-majority countries. Would Maimonides think that any charity, empathy or support for their horrible circumstances was less holy than helping a fellow Jew?
Fifteen years ago, the late Elie Wiesel, speaking at the Darfur Emergency Summit in New York City, said of the refugee situation, “How can a citizen of a free country not pay attention? How can anyone, anywhere, not feel outraged? How can a person, whether religious or secular, not be moved by compassion? And above all, how can anyone who remembers remain silent?”
Right now, Americans are living under leadership that admonishes any display of compassion. Anyone defending the right of all people to seek a better life is openly mocked. We are “losers, weak, anti-American.” This leadership is not only wrong, it is inhumane and heinous. It is history repeating itself, and we Jews should understand and recognize this fact more profoundly than anyone else.
I think Maimonides, like Elie Wiesel, would tell us to fight for the rights of every human being, regardless of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Maimonides could not have envisioned a time where Jews were included in the general, multi-cultural society. How could he?
For me, charity comes from gratitude. Giving, defending those whose voices are oppressed, is a great gift given to me. It was passed down from those who survived and consequently gave me life.
The line of yahrzeit candles in my grandmother’s kitchen are long extinguished, but the fire that those candles commemorated is not. It is our responsibility, our duty, our privilege to make sure they are never forgotten.
How can we not?
A former Baltimore resident, Deborah Walike is a freelance writer living in upstate New York.
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