In the days immediately following “Superstorm” Sandy, I watched from 3000 miles away as my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded with New York-based friends and colleagues organizing volunteers, raising funds, and collecting donations to contribute to the relief effort. I sat in Los Angeles, feeling paralyzed by powerlessness, far from my East Coast home, yet in awe of those who leaped to help, even as they waited for power, heat, and water to return to their own homes.

A friend here in Los Angeles raised a different concern, one that is echoed by social service organizations everywhere immediately following a natural disaster. “What about donations to the food pantries here?” asked my friend, an assistant manager at a local food pantry. “Just because there is a disaster in New York doesn’t mean that the needs here disappear.”

Does this need to be a zero sum equation? Do we need to decide between supporting the victims of disasters far away (or not so far away, for that matter) and supporting the disadvantaged in our own city?

Rabbi Yossi offers us a Talmudic framework within which to make this decision (Talmud Bavli Nedarim 80b-81a). The limited resource at hand in Rabbi Yossi’s case is water, rather than donations. Rabbi Yossi rules that a town’s well is used first and foremost for the lives of the people of that town, then for the lives of strangers. His reasoning continues along this line: the town’s farm animals are watered before those of strangers and the town’s laundry is done before that of strangers. However, a stranger’s life takes precedence over the laundry of the town. Rabbi Yossi then contradicts himself, arguing that the laundry of the town comes before even the lives of strangers!

It is clear from Rabbi Yossi’s argument with himself that the question of allocation of life-preserving resources has never had a simple and clear-cut solution. It is up to us to prioritize our giving, especially in times of extreme need.

One organization, Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, quickly made such decisions in the days immediately following Sandy. Yael Keller relates the story of arriving in the Lower East Side of Manhattan with cases of bottled water. Immediately, residents eager for water, which had suddenly become a scarce resource in downtown Manhattan, surrounded the volunteers. However, this water had been designated for homebound seniors, whose mobility was even more severely limited as the loss of power stranded them on the upper floors of apartment buildings. When Yael and the other volunteers explained this, rather than the complaints they expected, the clamoring residents started shouting out the locations of stuck seniors.

The response of those Lower East Side residents reminds us that there is an alternative to panicked greed in a time of crisis. They remind us to think of those who are even worse off, a difficult task indeed for those in a disaster area. There is enough to go around. Although as individuals, we may not have unlimited resources to donate to both long-term local needs as well as to immediate disaster relief; as a community, our resources are far greater.

Perhaps we need to learn from the example of Uri L’Tzedek and all those engaged on the ground in relief work and practice radical generosity, giving all that we can, rather than the minimum to assuage our comfortable guilt. As a community and as a society, we have enough resources to ensure that all who need food, shelter, and water can access it. We need not get caught up in worrying about our laundry, when the lives of another city are at stake.

Try out some radical generosity! The Union for Reform Judaism’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Uri L’Tzedek (indicate that it’s for relief efforts) are both doing great work on the ground in the areas most affected by Sandy.

Posted on November 4, 2012, in 2012, November 2012, Ram's Horn, Tikkun Olam. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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