The international community momentarily interrupted its preoccupation with Iranian nukes and other potential threats to civilization to address the calamity in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
Over the weekend, much of Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, and outlying islands were literally blown away by Cyclone Pam, a category five storm with winds of up to 185 miles per hour. The official death toll was six as of Monday, with many more injured, and was expected to rise as communication among the country’s 65 islands is restored.
In an emotional appeal for help, President Baldwin Lonsdale lamented it as “a setback for the government and for the people of Vanuatu. After all the development that has taken place, all this development has been wiped out.
“As the leader of the nation, my whole heart is for the people, the nation,” said Lonsdale, who reportedly had not been able to confirm his own family’s safety.
A UNICEF worker in Port Vila said all the power lines were down, and many staff members of the capital’s only hospital were unable to get to work. She said that a major bridge connecting Port Vila to the eastern part of the island looked like it had “a huge bite taken out of it. This isn’t just some rickety bridge; it’s made of concrete and steel, and now there’s just steel girders sticking out. It really shows the sheer force of the storm.”
“The wind was [so] strong that the shutters of the window broke off and … the glass windows smashed on the floor,” allowing the rain to pour in, a Port Vila resident identified as Jayleen, told the AP. The family shop was completely destroyed.
A BBC reporter said that just about every house in the capital was hit and damaged by the storm. “Many family homes have been stripped of their roofs or flattened by very powerful winds and torrential rain … There is a sense here that people will rebuild but it only takes a brief moment in the capital to realize that this rebuilding effort will take many months if not years.”
The story of the devastation has spurred various countries and aid agencies to go into action, airlifting in emergency supplies. Planes and helicopters from Australia and New Zealand have already begun arriving, while the United Nations, Britain and France were assessing the situation to decide on their relief contributions.
No one who claims the title of human being could remain unaffected by the scenes of destruction and the stricken faces of the survivors. But the thousands of miles separating Europe from this Pacific region is also bridged somewhat by a colonial history, as Britain and France jointly ruled the islands until 1980, when Vanuatu gained its freedom and took the road of parliamentary democracy. So they no doubt feel a special obligation to help.
In Israel, Foreign Ministry officials were meeting on Monday to decide what to send and how much. There was no surprise in this, either. The Israeli government and private aid groups have hardly missed an opportunity to send emergency help to all corners of the globe. The list of beneficiaries in recent years includes Haiti, Paraguay, Madagascar, Japan and the Philippines, as well as countries that are not always on the friendly list, like Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The offers were not always accepted, but they were made anyway in a spirit of compassion and a desire for peace.
In the case of Vanuatu, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Israel wants to help the country first because it is reeling from the devastation caused by the cyclone, and also because its friendship over the years makes Israel feel an even greater obligation to help it.
Vanuatu has taken Israel’s side at times in the U.N., but we suspect that the humanitarian assistance now being organized for it in Yerushalayim far outweighs any diplomatic benefits Israel ever received from it.
As Jews, we require no special connection or organization. All we require is a heart.
A certain Rav came to Harav Chaim Volozhin for the purpose of studying Kabbalah with him. Rav Chaim engaged him in conversation about world events and local matters, in order to ascertain the level of his character and if he was qualified to study esoteric matters. (Rav Chaim Ephraim Zeitchik, Hameoros Hagedolim, p. 546)
Of course, you don’t have to be a candidate for Kabbalah to be concerned about others in far-off places. In these days, between Purim and Pesach, as we prepare to cleanse our homes of chametz and ourselves of sin, it behooves us to interrupt, at least momentarily, our thoughts about ourselves, and think about people in trouble, wherever they may be.