January 6, 2005
The holiday season in New York wasn't magical. It was surreal.
Fifth Avenue was thick with crowds of shoppers and gawkers. There was a line to get into Trump Tower, no tables available for tea at the Palm Court inside the Plaza Hotel and a long wait in 27-degree weather to catch a carriage ride through Central Park past Wollman Ice Rink. Skaters covered every square inch of the jewel-like rink -- another Trump enterprise, it turns out -- gliding and twirling and colliding against a backdrop of illuminated skyscrapers as snow fell in soft white flakes.
It should have been magical -- if not for the headlines on all the newsstands about those tens of thousands of people drowned, dead or dying on the other side of the world.
How do you make sense of it? I mean, how do you make sense of it? I've been trying the old fashioned ways -- reading, speaking with people smarter and wiser than myself, reflecting -- and nothing bubbles up except, "Oh my God."
The newspaper editorials I read took a familiar tack. They dove into the muck of the tsunami and pulled out an issue: the lack of a global warning system, the inadequate civil defense resources in underdeveloped nations, the need for greater research into weather phenomena.
Editorialists clearly felt themselves on dry ground pontificating on solutions and pointing fingers at things that could and should be fixed. It's just unseemly to throw up your hands and scream, "Why?!"
I suppose that for most people, the adequate reaction was no reaction. Why is this surprising? On our way to a Broadway show we stepped around abject street people, men and women whose pain and doom appeared right before our own eyes. There were dozens of them on a given block of Manhattan, refugees of some less tangible storm. If we avoided helping the people in front of our faces, why should the fate of those thousands of miles farther away touch us more?
Many people took the Costco approach. Post-Christmas, the retailer was packed -- returns, restocking the larder, stepping down off a consumption binge -- but as people went about their getting they plunked thousands of dollars into a Plexiglas pyramid set up to collect for the victims. The Internet made possible the same reaction in homes around the world, as online donations to tsunami relief funds spiked. You go about your business, shopping, Web-surfing, then stop for a moment to do what you can for people bereft half a world away. What else can you do?
One reason there is no adequate emotional response is that the sensation is relatively new. For thousands of years, we humans developed whatever abilities of empathy we have by reacting to what happened in our neighborhoods and families. If a tree fell outside the shtetl, no one heard it, no one read about it and no one saw images on that evening's news. Technology has brought the whole parade of human tragedy into our home, and we are not up to the task of coping with it.
The late Marlene Marks, former Journal managing editor, used to love that moment in the movie "The Paper," when the wire brings news that a train wreck overseas has killed hundreds. "How many New Yorkers?" the managing editor, played by Glenn Close, barks. When the answer is none, she brushes off the tragedy.
For Marlene, the least appealing aspect of Jewish journalism came when anyone's initial response to mass tragedy was, "How many of us died?" Our natural concern for those closest to us should lead to empathy, not callousness. Empathy and action, in the end, are the Jewish responses to this disaster.
Sure, it borders on the trite and pat, but how can any eulogy over 150,000 graves offer much more? Words don't just pale, they run and hide.
"This isn't about where was God or when bad things happen to good people," one rabbi told me. "This is way beyond that."
Classic Jewish thought seems to offer three ways of looking at God's role in such disasters. According to one, God acted to punish the iniquities of a nation. One Orthodox Web site actually took pains to point out that in Asia, such was not the case, and no one should think so.
Big Idea No. 2 is that God has set these natural forces in motion and left humans with the free will to respond as they see fit, with compassion or apathy, with ingenuity or insensitivity.
The last idea is the one that strikes me as the most ingenious, because it is no answer. In the Talmud, Moses confronts God as to why Rabbi Akiba, the greatest and most devoted scholar, should die a cruel and prolonged death. God's answer is, in so many words, "Such is my decree." In other words, go figure. It is what it is. God knows. Because.
That leaves us with the plainest response, trite and obvious as it may be: Give what is needed. Do what you can. Pray if you want to. It wasn't your turn to die; but it is your turn to help.