According to Webster's, triage is "a system of assigning priorities of medical treatment based on urgency, chance for survival, etc. and used on battlefields and in hospital emergency wards." It further expands the definition to include "any system for prioritizing based on available resources." Its origins are from the French term "trier," to sift or sort. That makes a lot of sense. A moment of triage forces us to sift or sort our priorities and determine what rises to the top and what, by virtue of our limitations, we must discard or neglect.
Having stumbled across the most articulate statement of triage in the Talmud in the daily page a day, I have been mulling over the passage all week. Many of us are familiar with its contents but perhaps less familiar with its context. Here goes (with the translation of the Koren Talmud and its filling in of the text's glaring gaps):
"The verse states: 'If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor person who is with you' [Exodus 22:24]. The term 'My people' teaches that if one of My people (a Jew) and a gentile both come to borrow money from you, My people take precedence. The term "the poor person" teaches that if a poor person and a rich person come to borrow money, the poor person takes precedence. And from the term 'who is with you,' it is derived: If your poor person, meaning one of your relatives, and one of the poor of your city come to borrow money, your poor person takes precedence. If it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the poor of your city take precedence."
This discussion takes place in the thick of debates around interest. It is forbidden for Jews to charge interest to fellow Jews, and the pages are replete with full-throated explanations for what is and what is not considered interest, down to the weight of a coin. This exacting standard of fraternal fairness does not, however, apply to non-Jews. This is not a statement alienating those who don't share the same faith. Business is business. It is a statement about social capital for those who do share the faith. It's a basic definition of family. People outside of families view money as a currency of transaction, but people within families should view money as a means of helping and supporting those within their innermost circle. We don't give our money away freely to support a "member of the tribe," but we don't have to make money from family either, or so the sentiment goes.
If you study the passage carefully, you notice that each part of it is parsed so that it creates a circle of ever increasing intimacy. Jew/non-Jew, rich/poor, relative who is poor/non-relative, poor of one's city/poor in another city. While this is quite binary, the boundaries are clear. Status, geography and genes all play a role when we are in a triage situation. It's not easy to create firm borders of duty, but having a clear articulation can take away some of the guess work. At the same time, having this code helps us put the onus on the Sages when we make decisions that may not be popular or may have either psychic costs.
Spelling this out unambiguously may be more important than we realize. In 2015, Robert Evans of the Evans Consulting Group studied Jewish giving patterns and wrote about it in e-philanthropy. He listed the three top gifts that Jews made that year ,and all three went to, predictably, a park trust, a university and a medical center. Each gift was over one hundred million dollars. Then Evans listed the three top gifts of that year by Jews to Jewish organizations, and they were between 15-25 million. That's still an awful lot of money, but it's a fraction of what mega-donors are giving to other charities.
Most of us will never have the luxury of this kind of giving, but many of us will make charitable decisions - especially at this time of year. Many of us will divide our time and dedicate a portion of it to volunteering. Many of us will read this year and some of us will devote some of that reading time to becoming more Jewishly literate. The beauty of triaging is that we are not saying that there is only one way to give, one way to volunteer, one way to allocate one's free time. Triaging reminds us that when we can't have it all, what we reach to first will often be the most reflective of our values.
We're a small people. As the saying goes, if we do not take care of ourselves, who will take care of us? There are probably a lot of people giving to universities and medical research - all critical dollars in areas that advance causes we care about passionately. But a large gift to a small people goes even further.
Many may regard this behavior as too ethnic or too tribal, especially in a time of porous borders and open hearts. I understand that. But when I hear this reasoning, I can't help wondering if the person who said it takes care of his or her family first. We all have to make circles of commitment. A circle is not a wall. The need to belong is primal, and we must be wary of allowing feelings too primitive to dominate or care for the world at large. But at the end of the day, when we state our priorities, we also know ourselves just that little bit more
We have to start somewhere, so let's start at home.