If This Is A Man, the searing question which forms the title of Primo Levi’s first and most powerful testimony, has never gone away.
It points in two directions. It focuses on the victims. Can wretchedness grind the humanity out of a human being?
Consider whether this is a man…
Who labours in mud / Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread / Who dies at a yes or no. (Primo Levi: Shema)
An American colleague, Menachem Creditor, outraged at the separation of families, wrote a personal prayer for last Wednesday’s International Refugee Day:
God, we know there is little chance these poor children, newly huddled tender masses, will be reunited with their parents, little chance these terrorized parents will hold their children again…
I remember standing some years ago at the Hoek of Holland with ‘children’ who travelled that way on the Kindertransport, at the unveiling of a memorial. ‘It was an act of mercy’ one of them said. ‘And it was an act of cruelty: think of the parents…’
Levi’s question focuses equally on the perpetrators. Are we still human if we mock, beat, and kill? Is it human to allow other human beings to drown, starve, weep in lonely desperation?
The three simple words ‘this’, ‘Torah’, and ‘Adam’ – occur twice in immediate sequence in the Hebrew Bible. Together they form the statement: ‘This is the teaching of what it means to be human’. What is that teaching?
The first time the words appear together is in the description of ritual impurity occasioned by death: ‘This is the Torah, when a man dies in the tent’ (Numbers 19:14). But their meaning is incomparably broader that that context: ‘This is the teaching for humans who are mortal’.
The inference could be that we needn’t bother. We all die in the end, so why make an effort? Neither the Bible, Jewish wisdom, any other faith, nor our plain humanity has ever understood matters that way.
We are physical, vulnerable, mortal beings. We get hungry, lonely and frightened. We want comfort, company, community. If these are our needs, they must be those of everyone else also. So what are we going to do about it? Just as we hate others doing nothing when we suffer, so we must not do nothing when others are in trouble:
Never say: “What am I and what difference can my actions make?” Everyone needs to understand, know, and fix firmly in their heart that all their thoughts, words and actions are never lost…Every one of them makes an impact… (Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)
He was thinking of the second sequence of the three words, ‘this’, ‘Torah’ and ‘man’. This time the context is a basic existential question posed by King David: ‘Who am I?’ he asks God. How come I’m the recipient of so much privilege? Is ‘this the Torah of the human being, Lord God…’? (2 Samuel 7:18-19)
His words point to the other facet of mortal existence: to be human is to partake of God. To live is to embody a fragment of divine life; to feel life’s boundlessness flows through our consciousness; to apprehend wonder, know love and experience the fathomlessness of pity. We are mortals yet traversed and transformed by what is immortal.
If so, how can we let the lives of others be stymied by misery and their children be prevented from reaching out in joy and wonder towards the world?