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Saving Us From Ourselves – Speech @ the UN – Geneva Centre for Human Rights

United Nations – Palais des Nations

Geneva, Switzerland

Speech by Rabbi Avi Tawil


“Religions, Creeds, and Value Systems: Joining Forces to Enhance Equal Citizenship Rights”

The Geneva Centre for Human Rights

Since the dawn of civilization, humans tended to view the members of their own tribe or group as humans, and anyone else outside as below them. The lives of “others” their problems, their happiness or their wishes was for them of little or no importance. Humans are naturally ethnocentric.

Religion allowed them to create larger coalitions of people who had no kinship or much in common and permitted them to unite under a common belief. Religion served as the building block to bring together individuals unknown to each other and cooperate in a family like structure.

One of the first ideas that the Torah teaches us in Genesis is that Humanity is a single family and you can trace them all back to one father and one mother and that all humans are divine and created equally in the image of God.

Interestingly enough, there is scientific evidence for that in all human DNA, the X and Y chromosomes of all people go back to what they call a “scientific Adam & Eve.”

The first task that the Bible describes for humans is to have responsibility towards each other and towards our world. “To develop it and to guard it”

Religion helps us to see beyond our concern of survival and the reproduction of our genes to transcend and to be part of something greater than our selves. It tells us that nature is a godly creation and that we human beings are the “Stewards” of our world.

Only twice the bible tells us to “love your neighbour as you yourself” but when it comes to an immigrant or refugee, the Torah warns us to love and accept them in 8 different instances:

Twice in Exodus:

you shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

Twice in Leviticus:

You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19:10)

When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself… (Leviticus 19:33-34)

And 4 more times in Deuteronomy.

This is a clear and seminal principle in Abrahamic faiths.

by definition, religions offered a message which was not bound by geography but was universal in nature.

So they created a paradox: while religion expanded human communities, and with it their sense of solidarity and empathy – this expansion typically stopped at the gates of those who didn’t adhere to my belief. The affirmation of loyalty to my group meant the denigration of the other.

The history of our species is marked by the invention of tools and the ability to manipulate the elements around us for our benefit. But we did not always excel in the wisdom of what to do with all that knowledge. All too often the moral compass seemed to not work properly, to point the direction we ought to take with these new abilities. Technology and science need to be accompanied by a philosophy of life. By principles of peace.

The greatest of dangers our species face today is ourselves. And there no sign that any help will come from the outside to save us.

So if we want to have a better tomorrow, the change has to happen within ourselves.

According to Kabalah the Times of Messiah, a time of peace and harmony in the world.

is the result of an internal maturity and awareness that is achieved by the individual. When a basic level of this awareness becomes collective and is shared by everyone, only then, we can enter an era where “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” which is, as Maimonides explains, an analogy to geopolitics where strong and week nations cooperate peacefully is a state of affairs as it is unthinkable today that Texas will wage war against California, or France against Germany. We can see how this ancient hopes for peace are achievable. But global peace is the consequence of a certain degree of individual harmony together with shared values of compassion and the appreciation of life as sacred.

This is a timely gathering as we live in a world where the majority of the population by large, ascribe to religion so the ideas we hold dear in any given group should have an impact directly or indirectly in a larger scale.

Chasidic philosophy teaches that if you observe anything that is wrong, there must be something within you that needs to change.

The message is simple: We cannot always attribute all the unfortunate events in the world to visionless and self-serving politicians. Surely there is much blame to share far and wide but in a healthy discussion, we should begin by looking in the mirror. And in our case religions may have room for improvement.

Today we have gathered to define the ways we can increase the equality of citizens rights, a noble cause that we all need to fight together, so in this context, it’s a practical and necessary objective to indulge in a pinch of self-criticism.

The first Muslim astronaut, Prince Sultan Bin Salmon Al Saud after staying in the ISS said:

“The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one earth.”

Other astronauts report the overview effect. Once they are back from space they can’t forget the big picture:

Our planet hangs exposed in the emptiness and blackness of space. All living organisms are protected by a thin layer of gas of a minute proportion like the skin of the apple.

The more and deeper we manage to observe into space, the more wonders we discover in our cosmos, and the greater our universe become in our eyes. We can see More than 100 billion galaxies, each galaxy has an average of 100 billion stars. Most stars have numerous satellite planets revolving around them with countless possible worlds and a statistic of 1.6 planets per star. The elements we can observe all over the universe through the light they shine are the same we find here on Earth which are fundamental to life.

The more we look into our universe the smaller our planet becomes and the fragility of life, all life, becomes clear to us.

on Feb. 14, 1990 When the Voyager 1 was in the outskirts of our solar system, by the command of Carl Sagan and his NASA team, turned its cameras around towards planet Earth and took a picture. They were curious to see what we look like from that distance. All you can notice in that image is the reflection of the sun’ rays in the lens and deep in the black space, you can see one pale pixel of blue colour. He called that picture “Pale Blue Dot”. That is all you can see of our world from that distance.

Back here in this tiny dot, the only place we can call home, the human species spent much of their history fighting wars and spilling blood for land, for political ideologies, beliefs and greed. At times for no clear reason at all.

Being aware of the big picture is humbling and indeed very healthy.

In his famous book Pale Blue Dot, named after that symbolic picture, Carl Sagan calls political and religious leaders to highlight universal policies and a united voice in religion to promote values that inspire responsibility to one another and to our world.

Indeed Religions have been granted the tremendous opportunity to serve as spiritual leaders and a moral compass to achieve this.

At times it seems to me that we are still stuck in the dark ages. I hope I can see the day when people will look back puzzled when humans afflicted suffering to one another with industrial proportions, as sheer ridiculousness.

On the other hand, as small as the world may seem from far away, down here in the house I live with my family, its all I have to protect them. In that little house, I can raise them on the values of tradition, peace and respect.

Opening the doors to all and letting anyone take what they wish from it will not advance the world an inch to a peaceful state.

In order to improve the human condition, we need to understand and work with human nature, step by step. We need more Multicultural and welcoming societies but that should not result in the abolition of values that served as the building material to those nation.

When a person is welcomed in a new country after running away from destruction, inflicted by corrupted regimes to their people, they not only deserve the fundamental and human rights as equals but also to accept the responsibility he now shares in the new place to preserve the values that made the host country thrive and be multicultural in the first place.

Therefore, what would actually make a difference to increase equality across borders, is the promotion of values of cherishing life, to pursue goodness. To plan for the future of the family, to teach children to love and to love them. To value hard work and build for tomorrow.

When a religious leader speaks to his community he has the power to change a person’s life. So he must approach the pulpit with a sense of duty.

When a child finds comfort and affection at home and he is taught to care and contribute to his family, his community and his society, he or she has great chances to succeed in life and become a contributor, not a weight, to the place he will live in.

When we teach that we are all created equally in the image of God. Children from a tender age will look at people around them and see divinity. They will grow to cherish their lives, the lives of others and find transcendence through life and joy, not in death and suffering. Religion can be the ground for personal and spiritual growth.

A seminal message of the bible is that the blessing and the curse depend on our actions, we can define or change our destiny with our own hands.

The Torah doesn’t ask to choose the religion, the only time the Bible presents us with choice is this: I give you Life and death good and evil, and you will choose life.

This choice is not only in the hand of politicians who sign treaties. It is the choice of every single individual, every single day. We need to educate more people to choose life and the milieu around us will reflect the kind of values we live with.

The tangible solutions are in the “Atomic-level” of the family structure, in the organization and the compassion of communities and the dialogue between them. That is what we need to pay attention to, in the making of a nation. When there is real work being done at the community level, its easier to get politicians to sign documents and implement administrative equality.

We all need to leave behind a tragic worldview that continues to victimize countless peoples in the west as in the east with hatred towards other religions, ideologies, gender and sexual orientation.

Robert Schuman in 1948 said that the entry ticket to the union of nations of Europe is not geography but ascribing to the set of values they stood for.

In this journey we must not focus only on the end result, we need to see that every action we take is consistent with the world we want to leave in and that our means and ends don’t contradict each other.

As small as we can seem to be from far, together we can achieve greatness.

Be a blessing for the human family!

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