Sarah Shapiro

When grownups are helpless

One of the standard hallmarks of childhood is a sense of powerlessness, in relation both to one’s family and to the world at large. To be a small person surrounded by giants is an experience all humans share – one which we fully expect to escape one day by turning into adults.

But when, eventually, we do find ourselves disguised as one of those odd-looking creatures called grown-ups, we discover that “being in control” remains, in fact, a pleasure rarely to be savored. Adulthood offers endless opportunities to feel as helpless as a child.

In Jerusalem, life’s unstintingly generous in this respect. If it’s existential truths you’re after – insights into the transient nature of our sojourn on the planet and the unpredictability of the universe – then just stand a few minutes at a bus stop. Your mind of itself will be alert not only to the car coming too fast this way (a car ramming?!!) and to the possibility that the woman waiting next to you in her chador may be large not with child but with an explosive belt, and the Israeli soldier with a kipa on his head may not be an Israeli soldier with a kipa on his head— but you’re exquisitely attuned, as well, to the gloriously soft breeze on your face.

For that’s how it works. The emotional recognition of your endless vulnerability to the world around you heightens not only your anxiety but all your other senses as well. The capacity for unexpected joy is deepened. and broadened — a capacity for sublime pleasure in all things large and small. The sky’s bluer than blue. Little girls jumping rope – a sudden vision, sometimes, of unearthly loveliness. Simple kindnesses in the course of mundane interactions between strangers can be invested with extraordinary poignancy. A Friday night meal in your home, with Shabbat candles flickering and with people you love seated safely around a table, can induce such a mighty celebration of the heart as to rival the roaring of a happy crowd.

Since human helplessness is one of the things that life is designed to teach us, one way or another, before we slide off the mortal coil, then getting a crash course early on is ultimately to a person’s advantage. Although we who are fortunate enough to live here haven’t cornered the global market on suffering — a cursory reading of any day’s news will tell us about war in the Ukraine and  tornadoes in Tennessee, brutal imprisonment of protesters in Iran and Russia, flooding in Vermont, wildfires in California, a mass drowning of Mexican immigrants, a mass shooting of schoolchildren in New Jersey,  a daughter in Spain who vanishes, a son who’s kidnapped, and on, and on, and on, and on—we in Israel can still claim our front row seats. For when it comes to learning the limits of human power, we’re being forcibly indoctrinated.

And since as individuals we’ll all have to absorb the knowledge of our weakness sooner or later, anyway, no matter where we’re living, it’s a privilege to get the message in a uniquely meaningful fashion, together with our People, watching prophesied history unfold.

* * *

In a taxi on my way downtown an hour ago, the 4 p.m. Kol Israel news reported that Putin is again hinting at the possibility of nuclear weapons.

“What was that?” I asked the driver sharply from the backseat. In a most unwelcome fashion, the bulletin had unearthed in an instant my ancient childhood sense of being maddeningly at the mercy of strangers toying dangerously with my world.

The driver, an Ethiopian in his 20s, said “No, geveret. Nothing here. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry?” I snapped. “How can I not worry? That would start a whole new era. It would be World War III. And nuclear radiation anywhere will get here, too!”

“Here?” His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. He seemed skeptical.

“Yes! Of course, here! Radiation goes everywhere!”

“We are in G-d’s hands, geveret.”

* * *

I’m waiting for my friend Roberta in our favorite spot on Ben Yehuda Street, the pedestrian mall where, through the years, so many Jews in terrorist attacks have lost their lives, their eyes, their hearing, their faces, their hands, their feet, their children, their parents, their friends, their peace of mind.

We thank You for our souls ,that are entrusted to You.

When I emerged from the taxi, I was wondering if maybe we should have made up to meet at the other cafe we like, with security guards at the entrance.  But given the situation not only on this street but in the world, I’m glad, in this small cozy corner table that I favor, to have opted for the greater pleasure.

…in Whose hand is the spirit of every human being.

Alas, a few moments later, the wailing of ambulance sirens is heard in the distance, and in an admirable demonstration of Jewish unity, all of us coffee-drinkers stiffen, alert.

In Your hand are the souls of the living and the dead.

Will there be more sirens?

Into Your hand I entrust my spirit.

We wait.

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro's newest book is "An Audience of One, and Other Stories" [Mosaica/Feldheim]
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