It is a horrible irony for us Jews that this week’s parasha, Va-era, contains the first seven of the plagues. For us Liberal Jews, it reminds us that the worldview of our ancient ancestors was so different to that of ours today. Frighteningly, no doubt there will also be those Rabbis, not Progressive I hasten to add, who will make dreadful links between the plagues and the earthquake in Haiti.
I am sure that like me, you have been horrified by the pictures coming out of Haiti following the earthquake on January 12th. We are only beginning to find out about the human tragedy and circumstances that are difficult for us to imagine. The vivid photography and descriptions are extremely painful to see and hear, let alone directly experience. This earthquake marks a heart-wrenching pinnacle of devastation to a people ravaged by multiple man-made and natural disasters that has witnessed Haiti becoming the poorest country in the western hemisphere.
When we consider the pain of human loss, it often sends us into a state of chaos but at least the world around us is not in chaos as well. How does one cope with the death of loved ones, not just one at a time but many. Not being able to bury the dead. At the same time being injured or caring for others who are injured, many seriously. Not having the basics for survival – shelter, food and water. Having no faith in the future. Having no hope.
I have already been asked, in response to the wording of certain prayers how can one praise God who create the world with flaws that provide such massive loss of life?
I truly appreciate how difficult it is to read words that on more reasoned occasions most of us would understand allegorically. They seem to leap off the page and demand to be read literally. In such an instance there is no answer. I am generally uncomfortable about bold assertions about what God is and in particular notions of God acting in the world. Indeed, this line of thinking is often used to camouflage our own frailties.
Nature and our planet are understood by some to be perfect and others as flawed. What is most important, I think, is that it is as it is. In other words, this is the world that we have inherited, be it formed by God or some scientific phenomena: now let’s get on and live on it.
Now let us consider how we live on it. One assumes that people did not settle the land in Haiti knowing that they were sat on a great fault line. Overtime, the inhabitants may have experienced earth tremors and full-scale earthquakes but as human experience has been for the majority, we know that home is where the heart is and attachments make it difficult to just get up and go. We must recognize that, just as nature has dealt Haiti the severest of blows, so there is also beauty in the nature of Haiti and there has been great wealth to be had as well, especially through gold and crops of tobacco and sugar.
Sadly, the history of Haiti has been one of exploitation from the moment it was colonialised by the Spanish and then French. The people, the land and its produce have been ruthlessly abused. One particularly cynical episode occurred in 1825. Independence through a slave rebellion from France had been gained in 1804 at an estimated cost of 100,000 black people and 24,000 of the 40,000 white colonists. To safeguard independence from France, President Boyer agreed to a treaty by which France recognized the independence of the country in exchange for a payment of 150 million francs (later reduced in 1838 to 90 million francs) – an indemnity for profits lost from the slave trade. The French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher wrote: "Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that which they had already paid with their blood."
Haiti has had 32 coups in its 200 year history. It has been subjected to every form of corrupt human rule. Sometimes its source was internal, most infamously with ‘Papa Doc Duvalier who murdered up to 30,000 opponents to maintain his family’s control. As often, its source was external. In the opinion of Peter Hallward, the Canadian political philosopher, “Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.” Hallward suggests that “Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million – live on less than $1 per day.”
Hallward concludes: “If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then… Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti's people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop trying to control Haiti's government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we've already done.”
Wealthy and powerful nations and individuals have brought plague after plague upon the people of Haiti. This current catastrophe is caused by the inherent phenomena of our planet. The scope is due to the Haitian people having been corralled into densely populated, unsafe accommodation by a tightly held economic and political noose.
Let us hope and pray that in the future, rich western nations will reconsider their ways. To give them their due, President Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, began their terms in office with visionary statements about taking a moral lead in the world. We blame them for lack of results and perhaps at times they have deserved it. But let us look to ourselves as citizens of this country. It is only when we will give up one or two of our own ‘priorities’ to release monies up-front, that we will not have to rush into our pockets in emergency relief as I do urge you to do now through World Jewish Relief. Just think of the demands to change our infrastructure for more snowy weather. Would we still vote for a government that chooses to redirect additional monies for gritting to long-term, foreign development aid?
Today I pray to God, that in the future, the peoples of Haiti and those of other forcibly-failed States, will be able to see the words of our parasha on their own lips, as prayers of hope: “And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal am your God who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians.” In the despair of slavery, our ancient ancestors could not hear that message. They needed signs and wonders. Eternal God, let us be among those who are willing to send signs and wonders to our society and all political parties, so that they might send some to the downtrodden on this planet.