22 November 2012

Nowhere to Hide

"O say, can you see?"  Well, no.  Not really.  At least not without batteries and a flashlight.  O say, can you get some for me?

One of my favorite Sandy recovery stories in our community came a couple weeks ago when late on Friday afternoon a delivery truck pulled up in front of CBE and dropped off three pallets of batteries, courtesy of Rayovac in Madison, Wisconsin.  Ever the loyal Badger, I walked home that day to briefly prepare for Shabbat while singing my Alma Mater and favorite football fight song.  The unrequested but deeply needed cache of energy was a real boost, a shot from the darkened distance beyond New York's battered borders, a reminder that we're all in this together.

Now more than three weeks since Sandy devastated lives and land in our beloved Brooklyn, supplies abound in relative measure and the larger questions of infrastructure and socio-economic dimension emerge.  That a human being could be abandoned to the tops floors of public housing, waiting for electricity, heat and water says as much about our society as any random test of our character as a nation.  Because while it may be easy to dismiss the holdouts as nutty and stubborn (a description more fitting for House Speaker Boehner, perhaps) the reality is that the poor had nowhere to go while the rich had an escape plan.  And while it required a massive outpouring of cooperation between government (the Mayor, City Councilmen, the Governor, FEMA) and the people (Occupy Sandy, CBE, UJA, countless others) to solve the immediate crisis and basic human needs, the long-term divisions, the greater challenges of how to guard our borders and deliver the instruments of justice to all the citizens of the city remain.

Our city's schools, our housing projects, our senior centers; our immigration policy, our tax code, our budgets, beaches, bridges and roadways--all require our undivided attention as the planet warms and as the storms lie in wait, ready to pounce again.

The humanitarian outpouring of support across the city was a revelation.  A demonstration of what is possible, regardless of difference, when it's obvious that we are all united by a common humanity.  Painfully, as the Sandy efforts began to develop a new narrative of long-term solutions, one of the oldest, most intractable divisions exploded onto the scene:  rockets from Gaza into Southern Israel; a justified Israeli response; the terrifying prospect of an existential regional war that would unleash a storm of violence and like Sandy, re-draw the map.

The volleys between Gaza and Israel--with Hamas openly calling for the "end of Israel" while Israel sought merely to defend its borders--produced nowhere near the daily death toll in say, Syria, but nevertheless took up most of the world's attention these past days.  This is because, as Jeffrey Goldberg put it so well, Jews were killing people.  A dystopic Passion Play of the mind.  This quadrennial blood-letting out of the way, borders come into view.  The same questions remain.  To be worked out yet again.

What is particularly challenging is managing the particular-universal divide.   My friend Sharon Brous has been drawn into a public debate with her former teacher Daniel Gordis, who unjustifiably attacked Sharon for expressing humane feelings toward an enemy--a moral sentiment commanded of us by our religious tradition.  It's precisely the most difficult questions that demand our attention, Sharon correctly argues.  And with a ceasefire upon us, those most difficult questions remain--to be solved, not blown into oblivion.

Painful indeed.  I'll grant that it's easy to see our common humanity when we're all sitting in the dark, waiting for light.  It's another matter entirely when you're under existential threat.  But when there are no "rockets red glare, [the] bombs bursting in air," we've gained a moment to see another's suffering, anguish, even hatred of us.  And for some particular individual amidst that universal, albeit temporary calm, there is hope in seeing into another person's suffering.  That's what ceasefires are for.

When word reached us that the fighting had stopped, I heard that a slumlord in Red Hook was not doing his duty for one of our employees at the synagogue.  We'll do battle with him next week.

And then I reached for Robert Frost, who gave me some much needed perspective going in to this Thanksgiving.


We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone find us really out.

Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend

But so with all from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.


It's precisely where there's light, and peace, that there's nowhere to hide from doing what's right.

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