There is an ancient Jewish folktale which tells of a man visiting hell and being amazed to find its inhabitants all seated at long tables with fancy tablecloths, beautiful silverware and delicious food in front of them. Yet no one was eating. They were all wailing. On closer examination the visitor saw that none of them could bend their elbows. So while they could touch their food no one could bring the food to their mouths.
The visitor then went to heaven where the scene was identical: Long tables, fancy tablecloths, beautiful silverware and delicious food. And here too people could not bend their elbows.
But here no one was wailing – because each person was serving his neighbour.
The concept of human rights within the Jewish tradition is derived from such ancient Jewish folktales. Our tradition is replete with our sages reminding us of our duty to be the guardians of the world through the concept of "Tikun Olam", the commandment that directs us to leave this world a better place.
Jews have understood, sometimes tragically so, that failure to act on injustice reaps terrible consequences.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech has written that "the tragedy of our encounter with injustice was in no small measure meant to prepare us to serve throughout all future generations as spokesman for those with whose pain we can personally identify".
It was for such reasons that Jews played such important roles in the last two centuries when it came to human and civil rights, anti-racism, the labour movement and activism for the rights of gays and sexual minorities; this activism invokes names such as David Lewis, Kalman Kaplansky, Rabbi Gunther Plautt, Justice Rosalie Abella, Alan Borovoy to name just a few.
History informs our community that we must stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves – even if it means that we have to be critical of our friends when they stray from the ethical path.
In recent years, Canada and many Canadians seem to have been courted by dogmatists and others hoping to take us back to a time where darkness reigned and narrow-mindedness ruled our way of life. While many outright reject such appeals, sadly too many others have embraced it.
I have often spoken of my concerns with changes to our refugee system that targets vulnerable minorities. Specifically, Eastern European Roma who face outright bigotry, bullying, violent threats and even attacks by neo-Nazis have tried to seek shelter here. Canada chose to deem certain countries such as Hungary as "safe," making it difficult if not impossible for Roma to enter Canada. Indeed those pitiful few who have still managed to find their way here have been impacted by this reign of darkness. How else to explain why this federal government has led us to where a diabetic refugee child should be deemed undeserving of insulin at public expense or where a pregnant refugee claimant from Mexico (another "safe" country) should be denied publicly provided pre-natal care or even assistance at the delivery of her child?
Another matter I continue to address is our relationship with Canada's indigenous community. Canadian history is replete with examples of what can only be described as an attempt to commit genocide against our First Nations.
We have driven First Nations from their traditional lands, kidnapped their children, forcibly placed them in residential schools where many were left wilfully to die of tuberculosis or they became the subjects of medical experimentation, some were abused and sexually assaulted; we poisoned their waters to a point where many living on reserves in north-western Ontario still suffer the consequences of mercury poisoning.
I have personally been witness to aboriginal communities that face unsafe housing with extensive black mould, dilapidated structures, rampant prescription narcotic drug abuse/addiction, interpersonal abuse, lack of primary healthcare, unsafe drinking water and waste treatment, near complete unemployment, lack of an identifiable economy, and a fundamental lack of hope permeates many First Nations reserves.
And yet the only attempt by a Canadian government to begin a real process of healing through the Kelowna Accord was rejected by the present government.
Oppression has a tendency to be muscular so we must transcend its strength to ensure that our cup of tolerance remains filled to the brim.
One of the great Jewish sages, Hillel, is revered for his love of humanity and his message of hope. His words date back more than 2000 years but they are just as relevant today.
Amongst his many teachings Hillel has cautioned us: "Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world."
It is time for us all to reflect on the wisdom of these words, to once again allow light to break up the darkness and embrace the Jewish commandment of Tikun Olam, making the world a better place.
Bernie M. Farber is Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corp. He is a founding member of the Jewish Refugee Action Network and a writer and human-rights advocate.