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August 28, 2014 / 2 Elul, 5774
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Helping Yourself First – Is That Politically Correct?

While randomly perusing some Jewish community newspapers this past week, I was struck by the press releases of several Jewish organizations crowing with excited pride about the significant monetary donations they made for victims of the Tsunami. Not only had they contributed impressive amounts of money – they were also calling on anyone reading the release to send in their own donations.

We Jews are known for our chesed and charitable bent, and no doubt many, after reading these articles, grabbed a pen and went straight to their checkbooks. I went straight to my Tehillim, trying not to let my dismay overwhelm me.

Why be upset over the giving of charity to people who have a need for it?

The Talmud discusses the topic of which poor come first. It ruled: Aniyei Ircha Kodmim: the poor of your city come first. As the popular adage says, “charity begins at home.” Unfortunately, there are many people in our own communities who are hungry. There are children and old people, vulnerable to illness, who are not receiving adequate nutrition, heat, light and other basic necessities – in our neighborhoods and in Israel.

We are taught that if a man is lost in the desert, and has just enough water to keep himself alive, he must drink the water himself. First and foremost – he must preserve his own life. We are exhorted to do what we can to save another person’s life – and “not to stand idly by” – but one is not allowed to compromise his own life in doing so.

It is commendable to help others – but we’re obligated to feed our own family first. While organizations both here and in Israel are falling over themselves to send aid of all sorts – money, rescue materials and expertise, to the victims of the Tsunami, the needs of members of our community are being overlooked.

Case in point: The Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, has had to close ambulance stations in Northern Israel because of a lack of funding. In emergencies, minutes, even seconds can make the difference between life and death. Yet for the people of these northern communities, there are no life-saving response teams available in the immediate area. Shouldn’t our chesed dollars go to them first? There are hundreds of soup kitchens for the indigent in Israel that must raise their own funds as they do not receive government aid. There are many people whose electricity is being cut off and who cannot afford rent. Doesn’t the Israeli government have to worry about its poor Jews first?

It’s not as if the victims of the Tsunami are counting solely on our contributions and can’t survive without us. Millions of dollars in aid are pouring in from all corners of the globe. Even the oil-rich billion dollar Arab League nations managed to scrape together some petty cash to send over to their stricken co-religionists in Indonesia and Malaysia (of course, they are sending less than anyone else). As usual, the maligned but generous U.S. government is foremost in offering its resources to the relief effort, and consequently, as higher-income taxpayers, the Jewish community has already contributed generously.

As usual as well, tiny Israel, barely visible on the map, has sent experts in dealing with calamities, as well as money and supplies to the stricken areas. (One Moslem government sent them right home). Right now, thousands of Israelis cannot afford rent, electricity, heating, and food. Even hard working, two income families are struggling to keep their families, fed, clothed and warm.

I understand that on “paper” it is good PR for Jewish organizations and the State of Israel to act generously and unselfishly in helping people outside the community. But seriously, it’s only on paper. Israel has always leapt to the aid of countries like Turkey and Iran when they were hit by earthquakes, but that never stopped UN member nations from condemning Israel for “atrocities” like building a wall so that parents can pick up their kids after school, instead of picking up pieces of their kids from school. Israel’s goodwill gestures to stricken nations hasn’t changed the minds of those who participated in a recent British opinion poll that painted Israel as one of the worst countries on this planet.

How to explain the Jewish people’s pathological need for approval and validation? I once heard that abused children often prefer being with an emotionally abusive parent than with the non-abusive one – the reason is that they desperately want the love and acceptance of the distant parent. And so they try harder, trying to be perfect in every way just to get that elusive pat on the back.

We Jews want so badly to be accepted and embraced by the “good old boys”. And so we bend over backwards and run at every chance to do tikun olam (improve the world). Sadly, most of us haven’t figured out – after thousands of years of Jewish history – that we’re “running on a treadmill” in terms of getting global acceptance. No matter how hard we try, we just don’t get anywhere.

It behooves us to remember the instructions of every conscientious flight attendant: in times of trouble – put your oxygen mask on first, before you help someone else.

Yes, let us help. But at the same time, let’s get our priorities straight.

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