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  • Andres Spokoiny

Wake me up when it's all over. (Yom Kippur 5780)

Far from shore or any other vessel, the people on a small sailboat found themselves surrounded by sharks, just as something pierced a large hole in the hull. Water rushed into the boat, and the passengers sprang into action. Some worked to plug the hole; others grabbed buckets and furiously bailed water; others threw things at the sharks to drive them away.


But one passenger did none of this. Instead, as his shipmates struggled, he donned an eye mask, leaned against a pillow, and fell fast asleep.


Something like this scenario happens in the story of Jonah, which we read every Yom Kippur.


God orders Jonah to go to Nineveh (in what is now Iraq) to warn the city of its impending destruction, but Jonah flees; he boards a ship to Tarsus (in what is now Spain)—far in the opposite direction. God is not particularly pleased and sends a storm that threatens to wreck the ship and kill its crew. The sailors try to maneuver out of the storm; they use all their skills to no avail; finally they resort to praying “every man to his god”. But Jonah does something incredible: even as the ship threatens to sink, he goes below deck and falls into a deep slumber.


The captain indignantly asks Jonah, “ma lecha nirdam?” How can you sleep at a time like this?


Jonah’s reaction, however, is not unique. In times of great crisis, too many of us shut down and fail to act.


This is, to a certain extent, a natural reaction. Calling our instinctive response to threats “fight or flight” is a misnomer. The real response is “fight, flight, or freeze”, and freezing isn’t always irrational. Facing certain predators, moving a muscle could be deadly. But as the idiomatic “deer in the headlights” proves, it can be equally lethal to treat a car as if it were a bear.


For us humans, there’s more at stake than engaging the wrong instinct. Even when we know we should act, we get overwhelmed, or stuck in denial. Sometimes, we know that the confronting the crisis requires courage and responsibility and we fear we’re not up to the task.


This year, as part of the philanthropic community, I feel a little targeted by the captain’s question. Ma lecha nirdam? The Jewish Community, America, Israel, and the world at large, are confronting major crises. And yet, in many of us, the urgency seems lacking. The storms rage around us, but too many of us are lying in our usual cabins, sharing Jonah’s deep sleep.


After the Pittsburgh massacre, for example, but for a few exceptions, most foundations didn’t make major investments in security. We all agree that antisemitism in America is at a crisis point, yet few in the funding community have really changed the ways in which they operate in that field.


The same happens in other areas, both Jewish and secular. We know that the gap between Israel and the majority of American Jewry is getting close to the point of no return, and yet only a few funders are taking this issue seriously and investing the necessary resources. In America and the world at large, liberal democracy—the only system that has consistently guaranteed freedom, prosperity, and safety to Jews—is being threatened, and yet most funders haven’t made this a priority. On a global scale, climate change is also close to a tipping point, and yet resources remain paltry. (And yes, climate change is a Jewish issue too, if only because 70% of Israel’s population lives on the coast and may need to learn to live under water by 2050.)


But lack of urgency also has an opposite twin: panic and hysteria, a response just as problematic as Jonah’s slumber—if not more so.


In another famous literary storm, Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Act I, Scene 1), the eagerness of some to respond to the crisis ends up making the problem worse. As the eponymous storm rages, some noblemen leave the hold of the ship to pepper the sailors with urgent questions and critiques. They want to help, but they aren’t trained and only get in the way. The Boatswain yells in frustration, “I pray now, keep below!... You mar our labour; keep your cabins; you do assist the storm!”


The noblemen’s rush to the deck was actually worse than doing nothing. At least sleeping Jonah wasn’t in anyone’s way.


It’s important to remember that the problem with panic isn’t overreaction, but ill-consideredreaction. An effective response often isn’t a knee-jerk response; we have to question, and sometimes override our first instinct, to ask: what is the best way I can actually help?


Panic can kill you, sometimes quite literally; in many pulmonary infections, it’s not the virus that kills but the body’s overly aggressive -reaction. Flushing out the infection, the body floods the lungs with fluid, making breathing impossible. The virus dies, but so does the host.


I can think of many such panicked reactions in the Jewish philanthropic world. Think, for example, of the many failed anti-BDS efforts that not only were ineffective but backfired, giving BDS more attention and sympathy than it had before. Or think of efforts to fight antisemitism by backing anti-democratic movements that ended up threatening Jews and non-Jews alike.


There has to be, for us funders, a third way between the slumber of Jonah and the panic of the nobles in The Tempest.


The story of Jonah itself leaves us with hope.


First, we can be inspired by the gentile characters in the story. The sailors neither panic nor sleep. They react quickly and professionally, trying every physical and spiritual strategy in turn, and when Jonah asks to be thrown overboard (which seems to them an overreaction born of panic), they exhaust all other options first, before doing what they must when it becomes clearly necessary.


The King and people of Nineveh also exemplify thoughtful urgency. To the threat (“In forty day, the city of Nineveh will be overturned”) they react with both introspection and decisive change in their actions, and they effectively fend off the tragedy.


Finally, Jonah himself—the only Jew in the story—does wake from his sleep. He owns up to his misdeeds and takes responsibility. He suddenly remembers who he is and what he stands for; with uncharacteristic conviction he tells the captain, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the God of Heaven, who created seas and dry lands.”


Let’s join Jonah in waking up. Let’s reject the twin temptations of sleep and panic, which both boil down to not wanting to really think about our problems. While the winds blow around us, let’s act—without hysteria, and with reflection and care, but decisively, and now.


In the face of crises many counsel patience. That may work sometimes, but today I’m with Shakespeare’s Boatswain: “Be patient,” Gonzalo tells him, to which the Boatswain answers, “When the sea is.”

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