Posted by: Emily | 17 July 2014

On world events and powerlessness

As I write this, another day is breaking in the Middle East. The conflict in between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is looking more and more like a full-fledged war with every passing hour. And I feel powerless.

Like many folks, I’m sure, I have had to avoid talking too much about what’s going on in Gaza because of an overwhelming sense of futility. Discussing it, by and large, seems to be a losing proposition.

Powerlessness in the face of destruction, in the face of death, in the face of a seemingly uncaring world that is too big for us to change, is not new; it has existed as long as there has been a world bigger than our own selves. Daniel, revered as a prophet by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, was carried into captivity in Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar, and in 586 BCE Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed. In the Biblical book which bears his name, Daniel laments his own powerlessness, and that of humanity in general, and in the form of a prayer asks God to take action:

God, incline Your ear and hear, open Your eyes and see our anguish and the desolation of the city which You have called by Your name. For we do not make our supplication to You relying on our own merit, but on Your great mercy. God, hear! God, forgive! God, listen without delay! For Your sake, my God; for it is Your name by which Your people and Your city are known. (Daniel 9:18–19)

I think this is a fascinating theological conceit. I see it in a similar tradition to how Abraham and Moses talked to God, bargaining with God, appealing not to their own merit but to why God might want to act: because all of the horrible stuff going on down below on earth reflects poorly on God above. After all, it was God who caused God’s own name to be called in the same breath as God’s creation—God’s city, God’s world, and the inhabitants of that world who call upon God for their deliverance.

It is frustrating for people like me to be sitting where we are now: in privilege and comfort in our homes, with roofs over our heads and reliable supplies of water and electricity, the sounds of gunfire and bombs not keeping us awake at night, with our families not being threatened and injured and killed, seemingly for no reason, with no way to stop it, no recourse. For us, we feel powerless, and we feel impotent. We may not be able to affect change in the Middle East except very, very distantly and indirectly: does anyone really think that, say, if I refrain from buying a SodaStream it will save the life of people in Gaza, or if I write a postcard to Israeli soldiers it will help somehow, or if I stay up until four o’clock in the morning arguing on the Internet with friends and strangers I will actually convince anyone else? And if I did, what would it avail us?

Where I find hope is in our own lives, our own communities, our own souls. The best we can do, I feel, is to channel our frustration into something productive. We may not be able to do much about the world writ large, but we can do something about our world. Give homeless folks some money instead of storming past them and averting their eyes. Put in a few hours volunteering at the food bank. Pick up some trash from the street. Gather in community. Make some art, write a poem, sing a song. Turn off your mobile phone for a while and sit in silence.

The great rabbi and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel says that Shabbat—the Sabbath—is an island in time. He doesn’t mean that it is isolated from time; it is not something you can step out of this world to go to. The temporal world still exists, and it still affects our lives. We still have to live in that world even as we try to take a step back from it on Shabbat. What Heschel means is that in the sacred space of Shabbat we can find each other and ourselves, and we can take the energy and the spirit and the beauty that we create by our presence together on Shabbat back out into the world after Shabbat.

That’s where I find hope for us: not in screaming matches on social media, not in guns or bombs, and not in wallowing in our own powerlessness. but in community, in the redemptive power of the self and the soul. We may not be able to change the world writ large, but we can do our best to change our world. It’s a thankless task, and the overwhelming chance is that we will only see small, incremental change—if any—in our own lifetimes. But it is holy work, sacred work. It is not our duty to finish the task, as the rabbinic ethical text Pirkei Avot says, but we are not free to refrain from trying. Doing that work, changing our world—that is how peace begins.


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