All the news services reported Sunday of a horrific tragedy in Russia:
A half-century-old tourist boat with 188 people on board listed and sank quickly in one of the world’s largest reservoirs amid wind and rain yesterday, authorities and survivors said, and dozens of children were believed to be among the 101 people missing.
Two bodies were recovered.
About 30 children gathered in a cockpit in the double-decker Bulgaria moments before it sank into the reservoir on the Volga River, a survivor told the Interfax news agency.
Is there a particularly “Jewish” response to this kind of tragedy? Does any distress and empathy we may feel stem from our tradition, or should we Jews be impacted by it despite our tradition’s inward-looking perspective?
I’d like to share with you a very important concept from the commentary of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) in his commentary on the book of Genesis. Rabbi Jay Kelman, (“Torah in Motion”) notes:
The Netziv explains that the greatness of our forefathers was that they exemplified this attribute of yashrut , getting along well with people who were different than themselves, even idol worshippers. No better example of concern for others can be found than the plea of Abraham to save the people of Sedom. Here were people whose way of life was repugnant, even out-and-out cruel. In fact, the Netziv writes, there is no doubt that Abraham was completely disgusted by their actions… yet he prayed for their welfare. They, too, were part of creation…
A “yashar” has the best interests of God’s world in mind; God created the world to be settled, not destroyed. The suffering of others should evoke our empathy; we should be troubled when human beings, the crowning touch of Creation, lose their lives.
The message is especially pertinent as we enter the 3 weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, in a week’s time….Our sages teach us that a certain “disconnect” between Jews triggered the destruction of the Second Temple. Instead of seeking out that which united them, our ancestors harped on that which divided them.
Rabbi Kelman describes a tzadik as one who is involved in the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot specifically between man and G-d. Building on this, every tzadik can grow into a yashar: “A yashar is one who interacts with, and is deeply concerned for the welfare of people, even those who are different than he.”