Simultaneously, we had a frightening realization--it seemed possible that in a month or two the topic would no longer be "hot." To be sure, people would still be suffering. Shattered lives would not be repaired. The shock-waves of catastrophe would roll through the souls of many thousands of people, but would the topic still be on people's minds?
We had no idea that another hurricane would soon strike the United States. But Rita in some ways reinforces the centrality of the problem. The speed with which calamity fills the screen of our lives and then leaves is astonishing. We are connoisseurs of instant information, sympathy, and forgetfulness. Once the images no longer dominate the news, we have been there, done that.
It has been less than a year since the Asian tsunami ravaged several countries. Not only did untold numbers die, in the hundreds of thousands, but the lives of millions were changed forever. Yet who was still talking about the tsunami when the hurricane hit? It had filled our screens, moved our hearts, and then we moved on. After all, Britney was having a baby.
It would be an instructive, although ultimately sickening, exercise to measure column inches and broadcast minutes in American news over the past few months before Katrina: Brad and Jen's breakup versus the aftermath of the tsunami.
I don't mean to trivialize. We did not only move on to foolish obsessions, but because we have our own lives. We cannot live from disaster to disaster. There is wisdom in Thoreau's admonition from Walden Pond: "I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter--we never need read of another. One is enough. If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for myriad instances and applications?"
We can read about disasters all day. Once we know that fires can happen, does it matter that there is a new one? Who does not regret that local news has become a parade of petty crimes and lurid tragedy?
When I was a teenager, my brothers and I received a letter from my father. It was full of paternal advice, one piece of which stays to this day in my memory. He said that in his experience the one quality that separated "the men from the boys"--that is, adults from children--was the quality of stamina. Many people make a single glorious effort in this world. The promise of imminent reward moves us. But the hero is not one who succeeds in a single burst, but rather the one who does not relent.
The threat of exposure to tragedy is that it will wear us down, inducing us to turn away. Slavery in Sudan? Butchery in Darfur? Homeless, hungry, helpless? How much more can I take?
The answer of full humanity, the answer of faith, is more, more and more. Each person, the Jewish tradition teaches, is a world, a unique reflection of God. Somerset Maugham used to quote one of his teachers of anatomy who told him his anatomy books were misleading because the normal was the rarest thing in the world. No single diagram fits. Each tragedy is different because it involves unique human beings and so makes a claim on the decent human heart.
What do we do with the appeals that stuff our mailboxes? We may not be able to give as much to each as we wish, but we can pay attention to them. We can refuse to be coarsened. We can retain the vital quality of moral stamina.
It is evil to give in to moral despair. We cannot stop our ears against the cries around us because we just cannot listen any more. There are struggles, and we are sentries, and abandoning one's post is the greatest sin. As the poet George Meredith wrote: "And if I drink oblivion of a day, so I shorten the stature of my soul." Awareness, stamina, being alive are not just the exhortations of self-help, they are the moral prerequisites of a good life.
Articles are written about compassion fatigue. To feel it for an instant is understandable. To allow it to blunt our goodness is simply relaxing into our good fortune instead of reckoning with the suffering of others.
Too many Jews confuse the easy part of Yom Kippur with the hard part. The hard part seems to be fasting, sitting and praying all day, thinking of one's conduct in the year gone by. That is the easy part.
The hard part comes the month after Yom Kippur. Have we changed the way we move through the world? Did we search our souls, or merely beat our breasts? Yom Kippur is not a formula-just do this, say this, and you are forgiven. It is a depth charge dropped into the soul. That is why on this day we read a section of the prophets where Isaiah mocks those who hypocritically fast and continue to serve idols. If we fast and do not seek to change hunger, if we confess the pain we have caused and do not seek to cure the pain that still exists, we have not observed the day.
The central prayer of Yom Kippur, the Unetaneh Tokef, graphically reminds us that the fate of any human being in unknowable. Mi Yichyeh (who will live)?
Umi YamutMi Ba'esh U'mi Ba'mayim. "Who in fire and who in water?" Let us reread the words literally--who in the coming year will be in the water and who will be in the fire? Perhaps this is not only actual, but spiritual. Are we still in the water with the victims of Katrina, or have we toweled off, changed our clothes, and driven back to work? Are we still in the fire with the refugees from war zones or do we change the channel and forget? Do we carry the tragedy of other human beings in our hearts, in our willingness to help, or have we moved on?
Jewish World Watch, under the inspired leadership of Ruth Messinger, has helped focus the world's attention on the tragedy in Darfur. No one will force us to pay attention. We can ignore it, wipe the dust of another's poverty off our clothes, and move on. The Jewish response, the truly human response, is to demand attention.
The struggles of Israel are wearying. How much more do we have to hear of the Jewish dilemma, the toll of statehood, the wishes for peace, the victims of terror? Can't we simply let them take care of themselves and move on?
No, no, no. Death will bring the end of moral struggle in this world, but fatigue must not. The price of the blessings we have been given is unceasing application of our gifts to the problems of others. The first question of the Bible and the second are in some way the same question. The first is "Where are you?" And the second is "Am I my brother's keeper?" How I answer the second gives me the answer to the first.
Moral stamina is the essential quality to lead a life of goodness. We cannot give in, or give up. As A.E. Housman writes in the closing stanza of his poem "Reveille":
Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.
One who is blessed with life and strength is not permitted to turn away. The first sin that is detailed in the confessional of Yom Kippur is the sin of hardening our hearts. This is no time for indifference, insensitivity, or fatigue.
When the journey's over, there'll be time enough to sleep.