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God Squad: The human heart can bridge any distance and heal any wound

The 37th Annual Thunderbird American Indian Mid-Summer Pow-Wow

The 37th Annual Thunderbird American Indian Mid-Summer Pow-Wow in Queens included Hopi, Cherokee, Navajo, Apache, Kiowa and Choctaw nation tribes from Oklahoma, as well as Aztecs, Seneca, Mohawk and Shinnecock Indians. Credit: Dreamstime/Jenta Wong

"A good deed produces another good deed."

In the spirit of gratitude for acts of spontaneous kindness, I brought you the story of the man who tore open his package of toilet paper in the checkout line of a store to give half of it to a woman in front of him who had missed out on buying toilet paper for her family because the horde had cleaned out the shelves before she got there.

This week, the winner of my spontaneous kindness award goes to the people of Ireland. The story about their kindness appeared in The New York Times on May 5; "Irish Return an Old Favor, Helping Native Americans Battling the Virus" was written by Ed O'Loughlin and Mihir Zaveri. This is the story:

In 1847, members of the Choctaw tribe of American Indians sent $170 ($5,000 in today's money) to the people of Ireland who were suffering terribly in the Irish potato famine, in which it was estimated that over a million people, mostly subsistence farmers, died of disease and hunger between 1845 and 1849.

"Prof. Diarmaid Ferriter, a historian at University College Dublin and co-author, with the writer Colm Toibin, of the book 'The Irish Famine,' said that awareness of the Choctaw donation to Irish famine relief had increased sharply since the commemoration of the famine's 150th anniversary in 1995. The president of Ireland at the time, Mary Robinson, had visited the Choctaws in Oklahoma to thank them. Two years ago, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also paid them a visit.

"It showed how far the famine resonated that it reached people 4,000 miles away who had themselves recently suffered terrible deprivation and clearance from their land," Ferriter said.

There is even a memorial garden and sculpture in Midelton, Ireland, commemorating the Choctaw's gift.

In thankful remembrance for their compassionate gift, a charity was recently established in Ireland to send relief money to the Hopi and Navajo nations who are suffering high rates of death and infection in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Navajo Nation reporting more than 2,700 cases and 70 deaths thus far. As with all economically stressed communities, these high rates of infection and death are the result of high rates of diabetes, scarcity of running water and homes with several generations living under the same roof. The Hopi reservation is surrounded by the Navajo Nation.

As of May 5, the Irish fundraiser had raised almost $2 million dollars.

The greatness of the Choctaw gift to the Irish people was not merely that they were living so far away from Ireland but that the gift came just a few years after their own tragedy. The U.S. government forcibly relocated the tribe and several other American Indian tribes from the southwest of the United States. The relocation took the form of a brutal march across thousands of miles of wasteland, a march known as the "Trail of Tears." It left thousands of people dead along the way. The Choctaws were one of the first tribes relocated in 1831.

"I'd already known what the Choctaw did in the famine, so short a time after they'd been through the Trail of Tears," Sean Callahan, 43, an Apple administrator in Cork City, who made a donation, was quoted as saying. "It always struck me for its kindness and generosity and I see that too in the Irish people. It seemed the right time to try and pay it back in kind."

Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said in a statement that the tribe was "gratified — and perhaps not at all surprised — to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi Nations. … We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish potato famine," he said. "We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have."

Cassandra Begay, communications director for the fundraiser, said in an interview, "The Choctaw ancestors planted that seed a long time ago, based off the same fundamental belief of helping someone else. … It is a dark time for us. The support from Ireland, another country, is phenomenal."

The Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote these despairing words: "What seems to us more important, more painful, and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions."

I believe that if Solzhenitsyn had known some Choctaws he would never have written those words. The human heart can bridge any distance and heal any wound.

Stay Safe.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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