World Humanitarian Day celebrates the eternal struggle between our lesser and better angels.
Have you ever heard a voice inside your head whisper the following questions:
There is so much suffering close to home; how can I concern myself with people on the other side of the planet?
I have too many responsibilities already; how can I devote attention and energy to problems that don’t affect me?
The challenges facing human beings are overwhelming; how can my efforts possibly make a difference?
We know we shouldn’t think this way. Yet we can’t always silence the voices.
The sages of ancient Judea recognized that altruist impulses are easily beaten back by apathy, overload, and self-interest. They framed their response in an oft-cited adage that we are all responsible for one another. Their actual wording, however, is more nuanced: we are all guarantors, one for another.
What does it mean to be a guarantor? The answer to that question was implanted in the consciousness of mankind at the outset of human history.
In the beginning…
A different, more provocative teaching of the sages observes the following:
When the Almighty placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, He lifted him up above the trees and said, “Behold My works, how pleasant and how beautiful they are. And I created it all for you! Take good care not to destroy My world; for if you ruin it, there is no one to repair it after you.”
In these words, we find two competing messages. First, the statement I created it all for you implies that the earth belongs entirely to Adam, that he and his descendants may do with it whatever they please. Conversely, the phrase Do not destroy My world suggests that God retains ownership of the world; Adam is merely a tenant or custodian.
Consider this more familiar scenario: parents buy their 16-year-old child a new car but keep the vehicle in their own name. Their message is clear:
We want you to have the car, to enjoy it, to take pleasure in it. But we also need you to recognize that you have obligations extending beyond yourself. We invested in this car, and we retain ownership. We allow you to use it on the condition that you use it responsibly, and we will hold you accountable to ensure you do.
In the driver’s seat
From the sages’ teaching, we can infer that the purpose of the world is to provide a place for human beings to grow, flourish, create, and aspire to the nobility and singular potential that are the legacy of all mankind. Animals, unlike humans, simply follow the dictates of their nature or their training. They cannot choose good over evil. They do not seek to better themselves. They are not locked in an eternal struggle in which their better angels grapple with the limitations of their baser selves.
Herein lies the critical difference between humanitarianism and humanism. The latter attaches prime importance to the human rather than the divine. The ancient Greeks, for all their intellectual and artistic sophistication, celebrated the physical perfection of the human form while rejecting the transcendent nature of the human soul. They glorified the athleticism of the body by competing naked in their Olympics. They exalted in the alacrity of the mind with their academies and the sophistry. But they also abandoned imperfectly formed babies in the fields to die of exposure. They were the ultimate humanists, with no humanitarian sensitivities whatsoever.
In vivid contrast, the Judeo-Christian ethic on which Western society is based has always aspired to summon the most noble elements of the human soul, to encourage responsibility for our fellow human beings through acts of charity and kindness, to build communities based on core values of virtue and selflessness.
Of course, we have achieved that ideal only sporadically, backsliding almost instantaneously after attaining every moral summit. But that is precisely the point. It is human imperfection through which human nobility stakes its claim.
The humanitarian paradox
This is what humanists present and past have failed to understand. Humans are not merely highly evolved animals. The human being is a genuinely unique creature upon this earth, defined by the inharmonious alliance of a divine soul trapped in an animalistic body, ceaselessly striving to make peace between the two combative elements that make us what we are.
We look toward the heavens and reach for the stars. We fall from the heights and lose sight of our essential selves. Then we rise up out of the dust and the mire to try yet again, knowing that we will fail but undaunted in our endeavor.
So what does it mean that we are guarantors for one another? To be responsible means I have a duty to see that you do your job. To be a guarantor means that if you fail to do your job, I will be held accountable in your place. It represents a higher level of responsibility and culpability.
August 19, World Humanitarian Day, reminds us we are all in this together — man and woman, black and white, adult and child. So, too, is our fate inseparable from the fate of the world created for our benefit. On the one hand, we cannot overlook our commitment to our fellow human beings to pursue the vision of a perfect world. On the other hand, we cannot neglect our job as caretakers of the world out of compassion for the immediate needs of our fellow human beings.
No matter how seemingly impossible the job, it is our duty to embrace the contradictions of life and the paradox of the human condition.
That is precisely what we do as we struggle to resist the downward pull of our physical shell, to cling to the ethereal nature of our soul, and to inspire those who share our world to do the same.