Jewish Tsunami Relief


Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman



An excerpt from Shmuel Sackett, International Director, Manhigut Yehudit:

“When will we learn that Jewish money must remain in Jewish hands until every Jew has what to eat, where to go to school and receiving proper medical care? Does every Jewish bride have a nice dress? Are our elderly being cared for? Are the security needs of those Jews living on “the front lines” attended to adequately? Are the “outreach” programs properly funded?  

Until every one of those questions is answered in the affirmative, I am not giving a penny to the Tsunami relief effort. The only exception to this rule would be to the Chabad of Thailand that has been assisting Jewish families in their search for missing loved ones. Other than that, forget it. 

I am a proud Jew who gives exclusively to Jewish causes. Above all, I will never give a penny to the “Jewish Enemy Club” of which Sri Lanka is an honored member. Actually, there is one thing the people of Sri Lanka and I have in common. They hate me and I feel the exact same way about them!!!”


This is the sense of Shmuel Sackett’s article. Rabbi Friedman wrote the following position.


The Torah Value of Mercy

Rabbi Zev Meir Friedman
Rosh HaMesivta, Rambam Mesivta


I read Shmuel Sackett’s article “No Tsunami Money From Me” with great interest.   I welcome it because it affords us the opportunity to consider the Torah value of mercy, based upon the Gemara and Chazzal.  

Many of us are familiar with the Talmudic dictum (Tractate Yevamos 79a) that the defining Jewish characteristics are mercy (rahamim), modesty (bayshanim) and good works (gmilus hasadim).  These stem from the Torah’s commandment viHalachta biDrachav, our duty to emulate the ways of Hashem.  Ma Hu nikra rachum, af atah heyeh rachum, just as Hashem is referred to as merciful so should you be merciful (Tractate Shabbos 133b and Rambam, Hilchos Dayos).  Hashem’s goodness and kindness are directed to all His creatures.  In this, there is no distinction between different categories of people.  Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, Jews and Gentiles and, yes, even Jews and idolaters.  All are beneficiaries of Hashem’s goodness and kindness.  Tov Hashem laKol viRahamav al kol ma’asav.  Thus, the Talmud in Tractate Gittin (61a) instructs us to “provide sustenance to poor idolaters together with the poor of Israel”.  This obligation notably extends to idolaters (Aqum) not only to Gentiles.  The Metsudat David makes an important point on this subject: that unlike kings and popular leaders, whose kindness is typically reserved for their loyalists, Hashem’s kindness - which we highlight and glorify through emulation - is extended to all creatures, even those who violate His will.


Support for the victims of the tsunami disaster is therefore entirely consistent with the core values of every Torah Jew.  Moreover, one who does not aid the victims of this horrible event is failing to live up to his obligation to demonstrate mercy to all of Hashem’s creations thereby foregoing an opportunity to highlight and glorify Hashem’s fundamental kindness, an act of Kiddush Hashem

But what about some of the issues that Shmuel raises in his article, such as the notion that aniyey ircha kodmim, the poor of one’s city come first.  Should a Jew not support Jewish causes before supporting non-Jewish causes?  At first blush, this strikes us as an almost rhetorical “motherhood and apple pie” question, one that puts at issue our core sense of Jewish loyalty and community.  But Torah and Halakha are not rooted in instinctive responses or political correctness but rather seek to perfect and elevate the individual on a spiritual scale.  The answer is: it depends on the scope of the need.  If the needs are the same - then communal needs take priority.  However, if a situation of extraordinary need arises outside of the community that transcends the immediate needs of the community - then the non-communal needs take priority.  This is an application of the Torah Temimah’s notion of prioritization in charitable giving - that it should be based on the scope of relative need and suffering.  Prioritization also means giving more to communal rather than non-communal needs (see Orach HaShulhan, Yoreh Deah 251:4), but it does not mean excluding non-communal needs from the focus of our concerns.   

Shmuel’s insistence that Jewish money be directed exclusively to Jewish causes flies squarely in the face of the express Talmudic and rabbinic obligation, discussed previously, that the poor among non-Jews are to be supported together with the Jewish poor.   The Yerushalmi, Tosefta, Ran, Shach, Gra, Rashba and many other Rishonim and Acharonim all support this principle.  And since the Torah notes ki lo yechdal evyon miKerev haAretz – that Jewish poverty will, alas, always be with us – Shmuel’s construct would bring us to the unavoidable conclusion that a Jew must never give charity to non-Jewish causes.  (Indeed, under Shmuel’s construct, a Jew would never give charity outside of his own community!)  I cannot help but wonder how Shmuel would react to an advocate of the reverse notion: that non-Jews should never provide support for Jewish causes like the State of Israel. 

The Torah encourages us to live lives of moderation, not extremism.  As Jews, it is entirely appropriate that we direct our charitable giving first and predominantly to our fellow Jews, to our communal organizations and, of course, to Eretz Yisroel.  That’s why, for example, Rambam - like many other yeshivas - each year donates tens of thousands of dollars to these causes, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars of scholarship money that we and our supporters provide to help the less fortunate among us.  The issue here is not one of loyalty, but rather of sensitivity to human suffering.  Aniyey ircha indeed, but not to the exclusion of others.

Which leads us to Shmuel’s second question: what about the political issue?  Sri Lanka has a significant Moslem minority and has consistently voted against Israel in the U.N.  So why should we support it?

 Once again, I would advocate not doing what is perhaps ‘politically correct’ or emotionally satisfying but instead what is ‘halakhically correct’.  Halakha often mandates that we act in ways that run contrary to our most basic human instincts. For example, the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia 32b) instructs that if one is confronted with two donkeys buckling under their load, one accompanied by a dear friend and the other by an avowed enemy – he should help the enemy first, clearly an unpopular suggestion.  This is obviously not based on any fanciful notion of “turning the other cheek” to a dangerous adversary but, rather, suggests that our notions of friendship and enmity need to be examined carefully to see if they are truly based on substance.  The Torah compels us to rise above non-substantive differences in the pursuit of our ultimate Jewish mission to bring Torah values – like the notion of peace among people - to the world. 

Shlomo HaMelekh cautions us in Kohelet that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time for love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.  A wise and cautious person, a halakhic Jew who seeks peace among people as an important value, must carefully calibrate his responses to different situations.  He knows that one response is not appropriate for all circumstances.  And so he must approach each situation with wisdom.  That’s the message that we teach our students at Rambam: we should always be active on behalf of Jewish causes, but we must also be extremely discerning in the form of activism to be undertaken.  There is a time to fight, a time to demonstrate – and, as Shmuel acknowledges, we at Rambam do all of these things - but there is also a time for extending one’s hand in peace.

When we heard of the tsunami disaster and made our initial contact to the Sri Lankan U.N. Ambassador, we were aware of Sri Lanka’s anti-Israel U.N. voting record.  But we were also aware that Israel has important military and economic ties to many countries that consistently vote against it in the U.N.  So we raised the issue of Sri Lanka’s voting record with the Ambassador and suggested that we use our student’s fund raising effort on behalf of young tsunami victims and Israel’s humanitarian efforts in Sri Lanka to “clear the air” on the relations between the two countries.  The Ambassador was happy to comply and the Israeli Ambassador was delighted with the suggestion.  (The Sri Lankan Ambassador even noted, “despite what is said in the media, we know the true relations that exist between us and the State of Israel”.)  Thus was the opportunity created for the Sri Lankan U.N. Ambassador to thank a group of Jewish students and the State of Israel for their humanitarian support on television and in the print media of the United States and Sri Lanka.  It was an opportunity for everyone to see that Jewish students with yarmulkes and the Jewish State put political differences aside and reached across the globe to help alleviate the suffering of children in the wake of a monstrous tragedy.  In fact, the Sri Lankan Ambassador publicly acknowledged the sense of support that his country’s children would feel as a result of the efforts of a group of Jewish kids halfway across the world.  And the Torah’s message could be seen by all: tov Hashem laKol viRahamav al kol ma’asav.   

Shmuel would have us attach the following appendage to the Torah message of Jewish mercy for all of Hashem’s creations: “(but not to Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems and political opponents of the State of Israel)”.  That is not a part of the Torah’s catechism.  As witnesses to the Holocaust, Israel’s wars against its enemies, the cruel terrorism being directed against Israeli citizens, we may all understand the source of Shmuel’s anger but we must recognize that Torah directs us along a very different path.  I am proud of what our students did for Sri Lankan tsunami victims, not because they “jumped on the bandwagon” as Shmuel suggests, but precisely because they did the opposite: because they acted like halakhic Jews, not angry Jews.  Because they put the Torah value of mercy before the emotional rush of temperament.  They may only be high school students, but they have taught us all an important lesson about how Jews should behave.