A friend is reading a "Did you Know?" book, and she was kind enough to share some information with me one evening over Shabbat dinner. I learned a lot, and it certainly put things in perspective. In fact, it calls into question virtually everything I choose to do, or not do.
For example: If as the book warns it’s only a matter of time before our fragile planet gets clobbered by an asteroid, then why bother to shovel the snow that falls on my front sidewalk? (Probably because if I don’t shovel, children will fall on their way to school though that is certainly better than getting creamed by an asteroid and I may get a ticket for failing to maintain my property.)
The book also says that our bodies are hosting a gazillion bacteria. (Or rather, given the relative number of bacteria and body cells, they are hosting us.) Should we pay rent? Should we cease using any anti-bacterial products for fear of retaliation?
Seriously, though, given that the world will certainly end one day whether from falling debris, an overheated atmosphere, or intercommunal hatred once we decide that it’s worth getting up in the morning, how do we prioritize our activities? How do we decide what’s really important?
Off the top of my head, I would offer the following "to-do list" (and I invite readers to share theirs, as well):
l. Find out how to stop the asteroid from hitting us. Moviemakers have been dealing with this hypothetical catastrophe for years. Maybe they can help.
‘. Try not to make the earth any more polluted than it already is.
3. Be on ‘4-hour call for any family member or friend who needs me.
4. Learn from people who behave admirably and try to follow their example.
5. Write stories that make people care.
I’m not going to insult the reader’s intelligence by including things like exercise on this list, just to sound more virtuous than I really am. And, since this is not a public service message, I’m not going to include things like taking vitamins or having regular medical and dental check-ups.
The point is, we have a choice, and some of our friends and neighbors have been choosing exceedingly well. Two weeks ago, we wrote about an Englewood man, Lance Laifer, who learned that millions of children die each year of malaria, simply because their parents lack the small amount of money needed for mosquito nets or transportation to a clinic. Outraged, he began to search for ways to help. And when he found that more needed to be done, he began to do it himself.
In the same issue, we wrote about the views of economist and anti-poverty guru Jeffrey Sachs, who asked us to think really hard about our choices, particularly how we choose to target our tzedakah. Some people, he said, really poor people, don’t have a choice. All their energy is expended on daily survival. If we choose, he said, our generation can, with a minimum of energy and money, help these people out of the poverty trap. That’s certainly something to add to our to-do list.
Last week we featured Diet Eman, who decided at age ‘0 to take on the Nazis who invaded her native Holland. Outraged that these usurpers were marching in and telling her fellow Dutch citizens (Jews) to get out, she joined the resistance, risking her life for what she perceived as a moral imperative. She says now that she’s glad she did. After all, she said, how could she have lived with herself if she had done nothing?
As I sat at the Passover table this year, I realized that my usually placid relatives were stirring a bit more than usual over injustices perpetrated around the world. My normally apolitical brother-in-law brought in an impassioned reading about Darfur, my mother-in-law spoke about poor people without health insurance, and one of my kids spoke movingly about the need to reallocate resources from politically popular but unnecessary government programs to vital public services.
I suppose that one solution to the "asteroid is coming" problem is to throw up our hands in a symbol of futility. I would prefer to think, though, that most of us will choose the other option, trying to do some good while we still can.