South Sudan Communities Everywhere: How about Taking a Leaf from Maimonides?
I do not know how any community can survive without strong culture and ethics that encourage members to support those in need. Yet, when I look around and see where South Sudanese Diaspora [and our communities at home] are heading, I find much to worry about. It seems Western individualism is quickly taking its roots in our midst. And to be fair, there are still pockets of communal ‘solidarity’ shown here and there. Some sub-communities are better than others. But generally, the overall picture is not bright. For example, during times of bereavements members of our community have a strong culture for showing sympathy, albeit selective one amongst members of our community who share a common interest [mostly political], especially if the one in need is a ‘popular guy’ with a good circle of friends or a large and powerful interest group. This culture of ‘interest groups’ is all pervasive amongst Diaspora. It cuts across subcultures. Common language, blood relationships, location of origin, and common traditions are not given the same priority they once received back home. It is very much about “scratch my back and I will scratch yours.” Real charity ought to be giving and expecting nothing as a reward.
It is true that many of us living in the West have been making heavy financial sacrifices in order to share the little we have with our close relatives whom we left behind home. Some of us make contribution to good causes from time to time. We can support the work of our associations financially when we can afford it. We are not as bad as it may look. The work of philanthropy we already do deserves appreciation.
That said, there is still a nagging concern as to whether or not we are doing all we could to help the needy amongst us. And by need I do not mean only being short of money, important as it is. I mean needs of every sort. And to be brutally honest there are glaring gaps and shortfalls in our ‘good deeds” or acts of kindness for which we can feel ashamed.
First of all, it is a common knowledge that various communities have area or local associations that collect subscriptions from their members. That many community associations’ governing documents contain at least clause suggesting that an association is there to cater for the needs of the community in the host country in addition to those in the native country of origin. Yet in reality when one of their numbers is in great need (for example, she or he has to pay for medical operation or is unable to work because of sickness), the association does absolutely nothing to help them. Does it sound like a familiar story? Would the “association” not have been more caring if the “management committee” could meet and make a little and reasonable payment from “the funds” to the member in need as a token of support, solidarity, and encouragement? Would it not be good for the community concerned if the honourable committee members could go around without stirring up any attention of the beneficiary to solicit extra support of in different shape or form from the association membership which they could then kindly deliver to the afflicted member of the association on top of what has already been contributed directly from the association funds? Would that not make a huge difference to the member in need?
Another thing: I am sure we would agree that not everybody in Diaspora is fortunate enough to live with his or her family members around. Some are elderly and frail. Many have chronic health problems. They struggle to do their shopping. Others are too weak to clean their homes properly and adequately. There are also those who struggle with their weekly laundering. Still others are unable to cook fresh food for their own feeding and so end up resorting to packed meals, junk food, or go for expensive take-aways they can ill afford. And when any of these vulnerable members of our community is sick, no one calls. During cold or snowy days months of winter, many have great difficulties going around to meet their needs such as doing shopping or going to pay a bill at a post office. Few are fortunate to have conscientious friends and relatives. Others are not. Who takes the blame for our lack of sensitivity to the needs of the most vulnerable and the frail among us in Diaspora? Are they left in care of the state of the host country whose resources are already stretched with its aging population and declining birth rate?
How would it be like if members of community try to be more sensitive and try to take TURNS in helping by giving some of their time to cleaning up, doing the shopping for the frail in our community when the weather is bad, visiting the elderly and those living alone, cooking, washing up, inviting those living alone for a meal once in a while or to invite them to spend Christmas day with our families and to be cheered up by us?
The above are not the only categories in needs. It varies from one age group to another. There are those who are homeless. There are lone mothers whose husbands or partners are not with them for various reasons. They have a hospital appointment at the time when they are supposed to collect their kids from school. Some work. Sometimes they have to juggle with tasks. Sometimes they are sick and unable to accompany their young kids to the school. There is the young couple with a toddler and expecting another one. Husband working. The wife may be suffering from morning sickness. They are as desperate as anyone else for a little help. Often, there is no much support from friends and family, not to mention the immediate community. We like them fit. We do not like them sick, homeless, or in need. Etcetera.
Even the Western societies which we may regard as individualistic, make provisions for those in need by supporting work of charitable organisations that target specific need group such as homeless or those suffering from domestic violence and so on. As an example, we have Christian charity called Salvation Army, that runs feeding centres in big cities that serve hot soup for rough sleepers and homeless. They also provide overnight accommodation for those who need it. Other organisations in Britain provide confidential telephone services. There are numbers to call during weekend, Christmas time, or over New Year for anyone feeling alone or wants to talk to somebody. Last Christmas they made appeals in the media for people to contribute some of their time (from as little as 10 or 15 minutes) to be able to provide some service where it is needed such as visiting an elderly, baby sitting for a single mum, or taking an elderly out for a walk . The organisation aimed to get a pledge for volunteers to contribute up to 2 billion minutes of their time to be used in the community. This is 2 billion minutes! Not pounds.
Jews have very strong charitable ethics. In the Bible, we read that every Jew was required by the law to contribute 10 percent of their wealth to support the Levites (Jewish tribe whose job was to serve spiritually). Also, a Jew is required to harvest a field and leave 10 percent of crops unharvested. Aliens (foreigners) or those who are poor and have nothing can go there and harvest some of it for their own feeding. Is that not wonderful?
One of Jewish community leaders called (Maimonides) who lived in 12 century in Egypt laid out different levels of giving, or for doing good. Maimonides was born in Spain to a Jewish family. He immigrated to Morocco to escape persecution in Spain. From there went to live in Egypt. He was a physician, philosopher, teacher, and community leader. He presented acts of kindness or justice in form of a ladder in which the first on the list is rated as the lowest level of giving and the last (8 th) as the highest.
Here they are:
(1) Reluctance: To give but grudgingly (Lowest level of philanthropy)
(2) Proportion: To give to the poor less than one can actually afford, but to do it cheerfully
(3) Solicitation: To offer money to the needy after being asked to do so
(4) Shame: To hand money to the poor before being asked, but in a way that risks humiliating the recipient
(5) Boundaries: To give to someone unknown to you, but allow your name to be revealed to them
(6) Corruption: To do good to someone you know, but without making them find out from whom he or she is receiving help
(7) Anonymity: To help someone you don’t know anonymously
(8) Responsibility or Self-Reliance: To offer someone a gift or a loan or to enter into a partnership with him, or to find an employment for him or her, so that he or she will never have to be destitute need again. (Highest level of philanthropy)
These are powerful ethical values that encourage a Jew to do good to a fellow Jew as well as non-Jewish fellow human in need. I believe we can assign similar ratings to these varying levels of benevolence in our communities.
Maimonides did not think that it was going to be easy climb that ladder of philanthropy, but believed we can start grudgingly, and as we get used to it, do it cheerfully, and abundantly.
These are not just Jewish ethics, they appeal to the best of our human instinct. It is my prayer that we may take a leaf from Maimonides’ wisdom.
Would you spare a minute or a cent and help someone near you today? Answer the call.