Sixty Years and Spending

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Tragically, natural disasters are a relatively common occurrence. The scene is relatively familiar: pictures of destruction and death, with pale-looking survivors searching eagerly for help. Calls go out for money to help rebuild lives and property. The cyclone in Myanmar has created a second tragedy which, from a moral point of view, surpasses the natural one. The refusal of the country’s “leaders” to accept aid, thereby causing so much death and suffering, is one that taints the image of G-d in which man was created. A lesser-known display of moral bankruptcy is the fact that ample warning about the impending disaster was given and nothing was done to avert it.

This moral tragedy raises the question of whether one should provide aid to those whose wounds are self-inflicted. This issue has wide-ranging applications, and would include the appropriateness of giving a liver transplant to an alcoholic, cancer treatment to a smoker, medical treatment to a wounded (attempted) suicide bomber or financial help to one who refuses to look for a job.

While each question must be judged individually due to the many unique factors in each case, the question of helping those who are unworthy of help reveals much about a society. While some might recoil at even asking the question (after all, we must not stoop to the low level of others), others may wonder why we would consider helping those who, for example, may want us dead, or don’t really want our help. And, of course, both arguments have much logic – ethical dilemmas always contain many shades of gray.

It is crucial to note that the question only pertains to those who themselves are the cause of their own misfortune. We should not punish innocent victims because of their evil leaders. And while people often get the leaders they deserve, even in non-democratic regimes, this cannot justify disregard for human suffering.

With rare exceptions, Jewish ethics demand that we help even those who are unworthy of help. We must separate the person from the deed. While one may argue that the recipient may deserve his self-inflicted wounds, and perhaps it's even true, the spectre of those who are able to ignore the pleas of the suffering takes an unacceptable moral toll on us. When the need is great, one must offer help and ask questions later. Thus, one who claims to be hungry should be given food, despite our contrary suspicions; whereas, for example, one must investigate a claim of not having what to wear. Yet, there are times when we must not bail a person out. If one were to sell himself into slavery, the community must pay to redeem him. However, if one then resells himself, the community allows him to remain enslaved even until his passing.

However, the crucial issue is not whether we should help the unworthy. Rather, it is this: given the limited resources that we have available, what is the best way to allocate them? This question is the crucial one facing the health care system in Canada, for example, and touches upon the core values of a society. Should factors such as age, family history, ability to pay, citizenship status, and moral makeup of the person play a role in determining where scarce resources will be allocated? And if they should, which in some cases they must, to what extent? One factor that must be considered is the effectiveness of the monies spent. Thus, it could very well be that aid to those who “refuse” it should not be given, not because they should not receive it, but because such efforts will yield much greater results elsewhere.