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  • Writer's pictureEvan Wolkenstein

Vulnerable Enough to Care

Once we read this morning’s news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas, we all had a choice to make:

Go out into the world.  Or go back to bed.

On the one hand, we would have been more than justified in going back to bed, pulling the blankets over our heads, and saying: “This world is just too much for me.”

But we have people who depend on us. Families. Students. Colleagues. Friends.

And so we put down our iPhones, closed our laptops, and headed out into the world. But there was still another less-obvious choice we had to make. To care or not to care.

Obviously, we care. Obviously, we care that today was the worst mass shooting in modern US history. Obviously, this means something to us.

But do we feel it? Do we care it in the way we would care it if we’d never heard of a mass shooting? If we weren’t exposed to a mass shooting nearly every day of the year? Not to mention terrorism.  Not to mention devastating hurricanes. Not to mention catastrophic earthquakes. 

Do we care about each one? Can we? Can we really feel the loss and the devastation? And if we do, how can we live? How can we enjoy anything when there’s suffering like this in the world?

Today, I found myself between the Scylla of “how can I afford to open my heart to this suffering” …and the Charybdis of  “how can I enjoy anything, ever again?” During lunch, I flipped through the news and read an update about the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma. It made me deeply sad, and I sat there for a while, spoon paused between bowl and lips, and wondered: is there is ever an acceptable time, amongst all this suffering, to eat a bowl of soup?

We are two days away from the Jewish holiday, Sukkot. It falls mere days after the austere Yom Kippur, and is referred to as zman simchateinu — the time of our joy. How can we be joyful when, as Yom Kippur reminds us, there is but a thin line between life and death? How can we be joyful when the world is so full of suffering?

One central element of sukkot is the sukkah, the hut which Jews traditionally build for sukkot. Its roof must be made of thatched plants – thick enough to provide shade, but sparse enough to let in the starlight and the rain. It is a symbol, he said, of our precarious posture in this world, in which we must maintain a sense of safety and security on the one hand – so necessary to carry on, to find any meaning in life, to venture out of bed each day — and yet, we must experience the reality of the vulnerability of our human existence, never taking it for granted. Indeed, all of life is a sukkah – sturdy and yet precarious. The sun will rise tomorrow, and yet, tomorrow is truly unknown.

So too, the sukkah reminds us that we need to take shelter from the hard realities of the world. We need to protect ourselves from spiraling into the Scylla of paralyzing heartbreak. And yet, we must also guard ourselves against the Charybdis of shutting out the world. For just as the roof of the succah must be open to the elements, a succah is required to have a door. And so we do we. The door to our hearts cannot close.

We must feel. We must give. We must act. We must love.

And we cannot shut down, give up, or close off: from each other. From the world.

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