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Rabbi Knopf's Appeal for Jews in Ukraine

05/25/2022 12:30:10 PM


Rabbi Anthony Knopf


Last Shabbat, Rabbi Knopf spoke about Beth Ora's Appeal for Ukraine. The text of the sermon can be found below.
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The accusation has often been made against Jewish communities that they could have done more to help during the refugee crisis in the 1930s, and after World War II. Facing the current crisis, we don't want the same finger that was pointed at apathetic Jews 80 years ago to be pointed at us today.
The Jewish Agency, along with other wonderful groups, currently have people in Ukraine working to rescue Jews and bring them safely to Israel.
We're talking here about thousands of Jews among so many other innocent people who are caught up in this conflict. Three months ago, these people were living normal lives in a civilised country. They now find themselves at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control; their lives changed forever.
The theme of this week's Torah reading is social justice. We read of the Sabbatical year: every seven years, debts are cancelled and slaves are released. The Sabbatical year is an institution that impacts society as a whole.

But as we draw to the end of the Torah reading, the focus shifts from the Sabbatical year to personal poverty. No longer is the subject a grand societal policy but, rather, everyday, individual acts of compassion.
This shift sends us an important message. Often we give tzedakah to established charities rather than the individuals themselves. That may often be the most efficient way of giving our funds but there is a danger that, when we do so, our philanthropy becomes detached from the crying heart of the person in need. We are thinking about the big picture and we forget about the pain of each individual. 
So when we think of Ukraine, we have to think of individuals.  We think of the Holocaust survivors, many of whose homes have been utterly destroyed. How important it is that they find safe refuge in Israel where they can now find new homes and live out the remainder of their years. 
This week, I read an account from a rabbi who has just returned from the Ukraine-Poland border. He writes about Stasya, a wife and mother from Ukraine. She and her five year old daughter traveled in horrific conditions, and through multiple countries, until they finally reached Cracow. Her house had been destroyed by a cluster bomb.
When we give money to this cause, we do so because we sense the pain of people like Stasya; we seek to relieve their personal distress.
None of this is ancient history. It's happening right now. Previous generations had their tests - some passed and some failed. But for us, failure must not be an option. In years ahead, we must be able to hold our heads high and know that when the challenge came, the chance to do the right thing did not slip through our fingers.
Toward the end of the Torah reading, we are told that "if your brother becomes poor, you must help him."  We are then told 'Vachai imach - that he may live with you. This is normally understood to mean that your brother may live just as you live. But Rabbi Aharon Walkin suggested a different interpretation: when your fellow Jew comes to you in a state of poverty, the problem of your fellow Jew must live with you. 
His problem is our problem. Her problem is our problem. Tzedakah is not just about giving money. The plight of our brothers and sisters should move us at the core of our being. Sorting out their problems is personal. It's "with you". 
The problems of Ukrainian refugees must never become a problem outside of who we are. It must constantly be with you. 

Tue, January 31 2023 9 Shevat 5783