I lie awake these nights thinking about the shape of the world.
Actually, this is both true and not true. I’ll get to the truth of it later. But really, I mostly think about fuel.
The Russians don’t have an effective way to get fuel to their tanks, which is wonderful. But many Ukrainians need fuel too — to fight, or to make a run for it. A week ago — was it really only a week ago? — I gave money to someone who was buying fuel for would-be-refugees from Kharkiv. But how was he supposed to get there with that fuel? Did he even make it?
Stop, I tell myself. Transporting fuel across Ukraine is not a problem that I am equipped to figure out, enough people who are equipped to deal with it are doing so, and I’d better go to sleep now.
I push all fuel-fueled thoughts out of mind.
And then I think of Hebrew lessons. Every day, all day long, my phone buzzes with messages from the various “coordinate helping refugees” WhatsApp groups I joined. Hundreds and hundreds of messages pour forth in three languages, and from one day to the next, a powerful network emerges. What started as a deluge of disconnected calls for help and offers of money/clothes/medicines and so forth, has coalesced into pockets of cooperation and coordination that match the needs with the hands clamoring to supply them. By now, it is not rare to receive messages like: “Problem X was solved”; “No more volunteers needed for Y”; and “Please stop bringing clothes to Z. We are holding onto the surplus until the next group arrives.”
And now that the immediate needs are being handled so beautifully, other needs loom larger on people’s minds. Every refugee represents a set of future challenges, not all of them as easily met as the need for women’s clothes, size 38, or for diapers, size 2, or even contact lenses 5.5. Should I brush up on my Russian skills and volunteer as a Hebrew teacher? Or should I leave the language to the professionals, and sign up to host meals?
I remind myself that neither of these options is relevant at this very moment, and that doing anything at all requires sleep.
I push all absorption-related thoughts out of mind.
And then I think of Radio Echo Moscow. A week ago, it was a thriving radio channel in Russia, dedicated to sharing the truth. Russians could – and did – go listen to it when they wanted to understand what was actually happening in Ukraine, the scope of the anti-war protests in Russia itself, and the fate of their participants. And then Putin’s government outlawed calling the war in Ukraine a war, made reporting about it as such punishable by 15 years in prison, and just like this, Radio Echo disappeared, along with that other last bastion of free press, TV Station Rain.
Are the people who ran them even safe? How can we look out for them when Putin is cutting out all lines of communication? How can his own citizens know the truth when all they hear are state-endorsed lies?
There is nothing you can do about any of this right now, I tell myself, choosing to ignore the grimmer questions about whether there is anything I can do about it at all.
I push all dissidents-related worries from my mind.
And then it’s fuel again.
I am certain that variations on this internal monologue play in the minds of many of you, too. I am sure that they thrum with sorrow (how can we not feel sorrow now?), with anxiety (what will happen next?), and, in many cases, with breathless worries about loved ones, hometowns, friends.
It is true that I am not crouching in a basement in Mariupol right now. Nor do I have family members in Ukraine right now. But even as I stand on safe ground in Jerusalem, Putin’s invasion is an earthquake, and it shakes the very framework of my world. It goes beyond the need to do the decent thing and help all we can in the face of so much suffering.
What we do, what we think, what we care for are the mountains and seas and forests of the world as we experience it. But underneath them, like tectonic forces, lie the deep values that shape and move all else. They are the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human, about who we want to be, about what’s right and wrong and urgent. Sometimes these stories stay hidden. Sometimes, we pull segments of them out into the light of consciousness and celebrate them, and pass them on to our children, hoping they will then pass them on to theirs. And sometimes, like now, a challenge threatens these very basic values. Someone comes along and says — no, I will force upon you a different story, a different set of axioms. I will reshape your very world.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion is very eloquent and very loud in this regard. It says: Might Makes Right. It says: human lives are cheap. It says: liberties and free speech must give way to the good of the state, and the good of the state lies in its glory, not in its people’s safety and welfare.
Are we willing to accept a world shaped on these terms?
We have our own tectonic forces, our own foundational stories, and they tell us something very different. They tell us that right and wrong are not defined by power — Pharaoh’s might didn’t make the drowning of the Hebrew babies right. They tell us that human life is precious — every human was created in the image of God. They tell us that the good of the state does not supersede the good of its people — when the kings of Judea and Israel forced their people into poverty for the glory and riches of the state, God doomed their dynasties. And He sent His prophets, who taught us that the true shepherd — the true leader — cares for his or her flock’s welfare.
The physical invasion in Ukraine doesn’t touch me personally, but the very shape of my world — our world — is on the line all the same. And when we push back against Putin’s forces, we do more than try and help Ukraine and its people. We affirm and we strengthen the world we want to see prevail.
When we help the Ukrainian army, we build a world where right and wrong shape outcomes, not just might.
When we help Ukrainians flee the war zone, we build a world where human life is precious.
When we help Ukrainian refugees regain their footing and dignity within our own society, we build a world where solidarity, not power, shapes the day-to-day.
And when we involve our children in these efforts — when we take them to rallies, or solicit their help in gathering clothes for refugees, or simply pray with them — we pass to them the stories that will shape their world, one day.
So when we lie at awake at night and think about fuel and Hebrew lessons and the plight of people in Ukraine and dissidents in Putin’s Russia, we are also thinking, we are also worrying, about the shape we want to give our world. May we have the stamina to persevere, to support Ukraine, to help those suffering. And may we go on pouring our efforts, our worries, and our care into the shape of the world we share and love.