“Human rights as an institution are a band-aid” | cc: wikipedia
When we act from fear, it can often be the quickest route to bringing that which we fear into being. Dvar Torah to parashat “Noach”.
By Yonatan Shefa 5773
In this week’s parasha, we have the aftermath of what is, essentially, the second Bereishit, the second beginning of the world. The first beginning was, of course, last week’s parasha. Towards the end of that sequence of creation, we took our first (and definitive) step from unity into multiplicity; we ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and, essentially, split the world in two. No longer was our experience characterized by an integrated wholeness, everything was now fractured into that which we felt should be, and that which we thought should not.
After the flood
In Noach, after the flood, we find the brief account of humanity’s attempt to populate the world anew. And here, following the new unity of a single family’s (along with pairs of creatures) parenting of all life that is to follow, we find the next stage of our foray into multiplicity.
With the story of the Tower of Babel, we might take the position that it is Hashem, not humanity, who creates the many languages. After all, midrash aside, the peshat of the text indicates that our inspiration for building the city and the tower was to avoid being dispersed, to avoid multiplicity. We wanted to stay together, we wanted to remain as one, with “one language and one purpose.” They said to one another, “Come, let’s build for ourselves a city, and a tower with its head in the sky, and let’s make for ourselves a name, lest we be dispersed across the face of the earth.”
Yet it is precisely this decision, born of our fear of dispersal, that leads to our being scattered throughout the world.
So what does this have to do with us today, and what can this teach us about human rights?
Most governments do not see it as their central task to protect and promote the realization of human rights, and there are three primary avenues we can take to ensure they do so:
- we can pressure them
- we can plead
- we can lead.
It is this last that I’d like to explore here. What does it mean to “lead” towards the realization of human rights? It can, on the surface, mean a number of things. But for all the outward manifestations the source remains the same.
What would it mean for human rights to truly be realized? Would it mean that governments do their job and protect the vulnerable from forces that strive to undermine or trample those rights, or would it mean that we live in a world where there are no longer forces aiming to do so, a world where mutual respect, support, even love is the norm?
This second possibility may seem overly idealistic, but I regularly take refuge in the words of the Alter of Kelm: “ask not if a thing is possible; ask only if it is necessary.” Surely, if human rights are truly to be fulfilled, then it is not sufficient for us to strive towards a world where myriad forces aim to subvert those rights yet are, through constant vigilance, kept at bay; we must lead towards a world where such forces are neutralized, decommissioned, healed.
Human rights as an institution are a band-aid, a stopgap against abuse. In an ideal world they would be rendered entirely unnecessary. While such a world may not arise anytime soon, it is nonetheless important for our actions to be consonant with our true aims. That is to say, that our methods should be harmonious with and fully reflect the ends we hope to effect. Since the ends we aim to effect, I hope, is a world where human rights are truly realized, then what would it mean to act in consonance with those ends?
To put it as straightforwardly as I can, a world where human rights are realized as a matter of natural course is a world no longer characterized by fear. After our first splintering into multiplicity, Adam says to Hashem, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was (am and will be) afraid.” It is the first emotional statement by a human in the Torah. This fear pervades our world. It is this same fear that led to the building of Babel; it is this same fear that leads a man to cut down the trees of his neighbor, to threaten his life, or otherwise prevent him from pursuing a livelihood on his land.
It is just and important that we should take steps to intervene when neighbors abuse neighbors, but if we make that intervention in fear then we are bringing the same cancer into the world that we aim to heal, we are creating that which we aim to overcome.
So what does it mean to do our work without fear? This isn’t a full answer, but at least in part it means to hate the act, but love the actor. As long as I approach the actors in this conflict as if they themselves are at fault, wrong, evil, mistaken, then the walls between us, and the walls standing between neighbors, remain intact. If I am to tear down these walls, and truly lead towards a world that has no further need for human rights, then my heart must remain open, continually and fully, to all of the players in this conflict, whether “they” be Palestinian villagers, government bureaucrats, judges, uninformed citizens, expat activists, militant extremists or Israeli settlers.
When we act from a place of fear, we often wind up creating or reinforcing that which we aim to overcome. Any sense of “us” and “them” is predicated on fear, that same fear that began when we originally split the world in two. Fear is a sign and cause of division, and division, separateness, is at the heart of a world in which human rights are not fulfilled as a matter of natural course. In reality, underneath it all, there is no ‘us and them’, there is only we. Together we can build a world where human rights are rendered unnecessary; divided we cannot. If we wish to help bring such a world, then love, not fear, must be our path.
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