Finding ourselves in the Russia-Ukraine War - Rabbi Joseph Dweck

By Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community


At the base of the human experience is the problem of meeting our essential needs. Torah guides us in navigating this problem through its commandments to us. The principles of tsedaka-charity and hesed-loving support for life, are entirely based on the centrality and importance of sustaining and cultivating human life.

We also learn that there is a difference between tsedaka and hesed. The former aims to provide essentially needed sustenance, while the latter aims at cultivating life. One looks to meet needs, while the other looks to enrich and help growth and flourishing. Surviving, is not the same as thriving, and it is essential to recognise the difference between the two. We are taught that we should always be thankful we are not starving, without shelter, or vulnerable to attack. Conventional teaching suggests these always be the principle generators of our gratitude, and anything else that might be missing in our lives should be put into that perspective. Yet, perhaps it is not always useful to use human suffering as a base measure for living a full, healthy, and prosperous life. When our base needs are satisfied, we must not take them for granted, but focus our energies elsewhere if we are to grow and thrive rather than just survive.

The American psychologist, Abraham Maslow presented this in a paper on human motivation in 1943. He suggested that there was a hierarchy of need and development for human beings. His hierarchy is commonly represented as a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid are survival needs: food, water, rest, and warmth. Above that is physical security. Above that, are social needs - these, of course, are less pressing than the need for adequate food and shelter, but if human beings are to survive and lead even basic, healthy physical lives as the social animals we are, we require close and strong social bonds. When the various needs described in the three tiers of the pyramid are met, a human being is equipped with the necessary resources to exist in this world. It is at this point that one can shift from a focus on meeting urgent deficiencies to focus on growth and development.

Maslow’s pyramid is not a list of discrete states. It is rather a continuum, made of interconnecting and interplaying circumstances and experiences. A tragic and sometimes dangerous mistake we make as we rise through the pyramid’s levels of development is to dissociate ourselves from the foundational elements that allowed us to grow past them. When we do that, we lose our humanity.

We now are watching as the entire population of Ukraine is being slammed into suffering at the profoundly unstable lowest rung of the pyramid. What is more: the man responsible for bringing them down to that point did so from a position of extreme power atop the pyramid’s loftier levels.

Here in Britain, for most of our citizens, our contemplations on and around this issue are done whilst we sit  thankfully and collectively at points well above the pyramid’s survival line. But as petrol and food prices signal, we are in no ivory tower, and we must not assume that we are. We are not removed from the foundations and we are feeling them falter.

We must also not forget that, aside from the moral imperatives that demand our caring response to the plight of our fellow human beings, we find ourselves upon collective pyramids as well—be it as a nation or geographical regions, or indeed, as the world. We are all in this and we must all respond.

In this crisis and time of global turmoil, it is crucial for us, as Reinhold Niebuhr’s simple Serenity Prayer suggests: “to accept the things we cannot change; courage to change the things we can; and wisdom to know the difference”. We cannot control the mind of Putin or Zelensky (or anyone else, for that matter), and most of us cannot affect the developments and events of this terrible and atrocious war. We must, for our own mental health and well-being, accept that fact and make peace with it. These small brokerings of internal peace help us through times of strife and upheaval. We can, however, help the people caught in the middle of it who are suffering, have been displaced from their homes, want for food, water and shelter, and are living in a hell of uncertainty and instability. We can provide funding, and we can help to whatever degree we may find available to us, with shelter and security. We can help them regain the foundational bottom levels of the pyramid in their lives for their sakes and for our own.

The top of Maslow’s pyramid should be a place of wholeness, peace, and wisdom. It is a unique privilege to live there. A privilege that, for most of human history, was the lofty domain of only a minute few of our species. But the world is getting better, and more and more of us than ever before in human history, populate the place of self-achievement, spiritual maturity, and mental and emotional health. It is a grave crime of humanity when those who have risen towards the top abuse and corrupt its purity, goodness, and indeed, its power. When that happens we must enhance the outpouring of goodness ourselves so that hope is not lost and, as it always finds a way, humanity prevails.