10 November 2012

History's Call to Serve

ny mag
Most of the poorest people in New York City live on the edges of the city, which is different from the way it is in the suburbs where people used to talk about an "inner city."  In New York it's about the inner circle, the 'in' crowd.  We even have bouncers to keep you out (as if getting bounced is a ball.)

But an interesting thing happened when the winds kicked up and the largest storm of the last one hundred years devastated the perimeters of the city.  The relatively wealthier citizens were able to leave and poorest were not.  And while electricity restoration has brought much of Lower Manhattan (where not only wealthy people live but is an economic engine that drives the city, so that it has to be restored quickly) the real energy restoration--human energy--has been on the perimeters:  Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways.  

Uncommon feats of strength, generosity and nerve tattering wakefulness of such relentless proportions have, without question out-Sandied Sandy, and have done for New York what Katrina began to do for New Orleans as well:  create the potential to do things differently from this day forward, to cross borders, build human bridges of compassion and giving that shrink an expansive metropolis, that bounce bouncers from the cynical elitism that too often feeds itself on a desire to keep safe distance between rich and poor, have and have not, the inner city and the forgotten, outlying dunes of despair.

For Shabbat last night, to honor the veterans in attendance on Veteran's Day weekend, among those we blessed were two men in their 90s who served heroically in the Navy in the Second World War and another who served as a tank commander in the Korean War.  All these men were drafted.  They were impelled but they willingly served.  In other words, the law called upon them to give of themselves for the sake of their nation and because history demanded it, they submitted to the commandment.  

I often wonder if the revelation at Mount Sinai that brought the Five Books of Moses to human civilization is really about nothing more than Moses' particular historical world view:  a people freed from slavery need Law to give structure and meaning to their lives.  A Sabbath for rest; care for the widow, stranger, orphan and child; just wages for the worker; mandatory education for children; injunction against murder and theft; the knowledge that the needy will always require our care; faithfulness in relationships; honor for those who brought us into the world.  

He needed Commandment as much as he needed God.  And since God stayed up on the mountain, Commandment came down to the people, first in the form of stone Tablets, then in a Scroll of Law, then books, and now, one can read the entire Jewish legal tradition, downloaded as an app.  (When you read it in that order, you get how silly the word "app" is but that's for another day.)

Back to Brooklyn and Queens.  I am convinced that New York City has the potential to galvanize a national debate in this country about the obligation to serve, about the commanding voice that gives to those most in need, that denies artificial barriers based on income, race, nationality, or whether you live in a high rise with a doorman whose power is restored or you live in high rise by the sea, in public housing, where darkness and desertion have covered you in the freezing winds of the past two weeks.

The basic truths we now know we've always known: the poor and neglected have a mountain of unmet needs; our national, state and city infrastructures need massive repair and reinvention; and yes, climate change is a reality.

But the new basic truth we learned as a city these last two weeks is that the desire to serve, to care, to be commanded to hear the voice calling us to repair and rebuild the material and the human dimensions of life, is a voice that can transform the whole country.  It can serve as the groundswell of service, the galvanizing historical moment, a draft for public service--not to fight wars that kill people but to battle poverty, despair, and illiteracy; to re-create a public infrastructure; to build barriers at sea that limit a storm's potential but to open doors and create pathways of possibility for millions living on the edge.

Hurricane winds destroyed large sections of the city's outer perimeter; but a mere draft to public service could change for the better our whole country.   

Who knows?  Maybe one day we'll look back and say we were all veterans of a time when history called us to serve.


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