A Model for Social Activism: Part One
In helping others, states the Prophet, “Do not hide yourself from your own kin!” (Isaiah 58:7)
In this letter, we will begin to explore how Moshe Rebbeinu – Moses, our Teacher – serves as a model for social activism. It was Moshe who was chosen by Hashem – the Compassionate One – to lead our people out of Egypt and bring us to Mount Sinai, where we received the Torah, the Divine Teaching.
When did Moshe – the adopted Hebrew boy who grew up in the palace of the selfish and cruel Pharaoh – become a “social activist”? In the following statement, the Torah mentions that when Moshe matured, he left the palace to observe the plight of his brethren: “It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens” (Exodus 2:11). The Midrash, in its commentary on this verse, explains:
He looked upon their burdens and wept, saying: “Woe is me for you; would that I could die for you.” There is no labor more strenuous than that of handling clay, and he used to shoulder the burdens and help each one - pretending all the time to be helping Pharaoh. Hashem then said to him: “You have put aside your business and have gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; well, I will also leave those on high and below and speak with you.” This speaking took place at the burning bush. (Exodus Rabbah 1:27)
When Moshe realized the full suffering of his people, he did not remain indifferent or neutral. He strove to help his persecuted brethren, and he even struck down an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew man to death (Exodus 2:11,12 – see Exodus Rabbah 1:28). The cruelty of the Egyptian oppressors was not his only concern, for in the next story, we discover that Moshe was also concerned about the internal welfare of his people: “He went out the next day and behold: two Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the wicked one, ‘Why would you strike your fellow?’ ” (Exodus 2:13)
When Pharaoh found out how Moshe intervened on behalf of a Hebrew man who was being beaten to death, he sought to kill Moshe. Moshe was forced to flee, and he ended up in the land of Midian, where he rested by a well. The Torah then tells us a third story about Moshe's concern for others:
“The priest of Midian had seven daughters; they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father's sheep. The shepherds came and drove them away. Moshe got up and saved them and watered their sheep.” (Exodus 2:16,17)
Moshe began his activism with concern for his own people, and he later extended this concern to members of another people. Although we are to learn from Moshe that our concern cannot be limited to our own people; we are to also learn from Moshe that our concern must begin with our own people. Through this balanced approach, we can serve as a model for social activists among other peoples who are striving to improve their communities.
A fascinating model of Jewish social activism is “Hatzalah” - a network of volunteer ambulance corps organized by Torah-committed communities. For example, there is “Chevra Hatzalah” - a non-profit organization of Torah-committed volunteers which is also the largest all-volunteer ambulance service in the United States. Their volunteer force includes over one thousand emergency medical technicians, paramedics, physician assistants and MDs who are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, throughout the Greater NY Metropolitan Area and areas of Upstate NY. All volunteer emergency care providers are trained in search and rescue; moreover, they provide high quality pre-hospital emergency medical treatment and transportation at no cost to all who need it. Their ambulances arrive within a few minutes, and their quick response helps to save lives; in fact, their ambulances were the first to arrive at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The dedication and self-sacrifice of these Torah-committed volunteers on that tragic day was praised by people of all faiths and nationalities.
The role of the Hatzalah volunteer is multi-faceted. Providing immediate medical aid is not the volunteer’s sole task, even if it is the most pressing. Patients have other needs that must not be forgotten. For example, do they need someone to stay with them in the hospital or care for them at home? Do they need medical referrals? Do they have everything they need for their hospital stay? Will their home be locked and secure? Will their doctors be notified? Is there an urgent matter that requires immediate attention? Hatzalah volunteers ensure that these needs and many others are not forgotten.
They assist the family and caregivers, as well. The family and caregivers have needs that are often overlooked in a patient-centric environment. They are often pushed to the sidelines as all available resources are directed towards the patient. Hatzalah volunteers assist the caregivers who accompany the patient/s by giving them advice, food packages, and sometimes even some money when people are caught short. Hatzalah sees to it that children left at home will be taken care of. When necessary, Hatzalah volunteers arrange for support and assistance to be provided by other agencies.
Hatzalah volunteers are also uniquely trained to service the elderly Holocaust survivor population; moreover, many of the volunteers are the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Special sensitivity training enables the Hatzalah volunteers to alleviate much of the anxiety and fears that trouble Holocaust survivors during an emergency crisis.
Hatzalah began in the Satmar Chassidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and branches were later established in other diverse Torah-committed communities. The Jewish Week of New York (Feb. 13, 2004) described how Hatzalah inspired an African American leader in Brooklyn to start a similar ambulance corps in “Bedford Stuyvesant” – an African American neighborhood in Brooklyn. James Robinson, who founded the “Bed-Stuy Corps” with Joe Perez, said he was inspired by Hatzalah during his long career with the city’s Emergency Medical Service. He said:
“I was amazed that every time I would respond to a call in a Jewish neighborhood, the patient had already been removed by Hatzalah. In 1998, I decided to see if I can do it in Bed-Stuy. Now I try to pattern everything I do after Hatzalah.”
The Jewish Week also reported that a number of Torah-observant Jews, most of them Chassidic, have volunteered to assist the new ambulance corps in Bed-Stuy.
The above stories about Hatzalah demonstrate that when we fulfill the mitzvah, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), we can become a source of inspiration for others.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. An article about my mother and her neighborhood activism appears in the archive of our current series on our website. The title of the article is, “My Mother, the “Service Maven.” The direct link is:
2. For information on the Hatzalah network based in New York, visit: http://www.hatzalah.org/ .
3. For information on the Hatzalah network in Israel, visit:
The chief coordinator in Israel, Eli Beer, is a son of Rabbi Gavriel Beer, the teacher who got me started on the path of Torah when I was a boy. It was he who persuaded my parents to send me to a Torah-committed Jewish day school at age 10. Many years later, I was reunited with Rabbi Beer in Jerusalem, and I asked him what inspired him to speak to my parents about sending me to HILI – the Hebrew Institute of Long Island. He told me that he was very moved by all the acts of “chesed” - lovingkindness - that my parents did, including my mother's help to the elderly residents. Most of them were Jewish, and her devotion to them caused them to feel that my mother was their adopted daughter. As Rabbi Beer explained, he felt that a boy who grew up in a house of chesed would flourish in the house of Torah.