Today, on this 73rd Human Rights Day, which commemorates the date in 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, my thoughts keep returning to the Torah’s beautiful phrase, ‘His soul is bound to his soul.’
It’s spoken by Judah as he describes to the viceroy of Egypt, who, unbeknown to him, is in fact his long-lost brother Joseph, the special bond between their father Jacob and his youngest son Benjamin. Judah has pledged himself to bring the boy back safely: how then can he return to his father without him, since Jacob’s soul is bound to his soul?
The sentence describes the tenacious tenderness of parental love. But it also has a wider resonance. The word translated as soul, nefesh, literally means ‘life.’ Judah is in fact describing the bond of which we are all part: ‘life is bound to life,’ every human being is connected to and dependent on others. Sometimes the bond is love. Often it’s more basic: the duty to ensure that others aren’t oppressed, starving, drenched and freezing with nowhere to go.
I listened to a report from the Poland-Belarus border on Radio 4’s Crossing Continents. A young teacher on the Polish side described how every night she and her friends take hot soup, blankets, even just water, to refugees, small children among them, stranded between the icy forests and the marshes. After bringing them to Minsk, Belarus harries them to the border, which Poland and the EU won’t let them cross. Some die.
I couldn’t help thinking of 1938, when Nazi Germany expelled thousands of Jews of Polish origin to the frontier, where they were ‘forced to scramble across the barrier into Poland while the guards screamed at them. No sooner were they on Polish soil than Polish border troops chased them back,’ until the Polish authorities eventually relented. (David Cesarani: Final Solution) I’m doubtful if, as a species, we learn from history.
It would not be difficult to draw up two lists. The first would include all the good intentions outlined in the Universal Declaration, each as important now as when it was drafted. The second, sadly longer, would comprise the ways they are disregarded today, from the genocidal sufferings of Uyghur people in China, to the desperation of millions in Afghanistan, and fate of thousands of refugees in Europe.
But I’m not sure that’s helpful. I’d rather stress something more positive, but also more personal and demanding. Judah tells the viceroy of Egypt that he’s pledged himself to bring Benjamin home safely. Rabbinic tradition understands that pledge as representing the responsibility we all owe one another.
Judaism doesn’t speak a language of rights but of responsibilities. It’s forbidden to ‘stand idly by the blood of your brother.’ It’s a duty to ‘feed the hungry, clothe the naked and bring the oppressed and destitute home.’ These are acts of Tsedakah vaHesed, social justice and faithful kindness, the values at the ethical heart of Judaism and all genuine religions and moral philosophies.
The question, then, is not ‘What does the theory say?’ but ‘What can I do? How can I increase the amount of Hesed in the world?’ There are people, near and far, who need us, who’re crying out now: ‘My life is bound to yours,’ my safety and wellbeing depends on you.
When Nelson Mandela wrote that ‘to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity,’ he understood profoundly that it is also our own humanity which is challenged if we stand silently by while others are trodden down. Our souls, the moral and spiritual quality of our lives, are bound to others, to how we fight for and care for their lives alongside our own.