Ask Miriam | What to Do in the Face of Suffering


Dear Miriam,

Our country is flooding and burning. Things seem pretty grim, not even mentioning the more directly human-caused fighting happening seemingly everywhere. What can I do in the face of so much suffering?


Feeling helpless

Dear Helpless,

It is a perfect, tragic coincidence to be answering your question on the 16th anniversary of 9/11, a date that signals, for many people in my generation, our loss of collective innocence.

Even though I wasn’t as directly impacted as so many others who lost loved ones on that day, I distinctly remember thinking that nothing would ever be normal again. Indeed, for people directly impacted by this recent spate of natural disasters, I’m sure they are grieving for a loss of normalcy, to the extent that they are even able to think beyond their immediate physical needs.

There are some tangible ways to relieve the suffering of people in Houston, and donating money to Jewish Federation’s Harvey Relief Fund is one of them. There are lots of other food banks, schools and religious and secular institutions collecting donations. A little research can help you decide on your own funding priorities and where you would want your money to go. There are also blood drives, school supply drives, menstrual supply drives and more ways to give actual items people need.

While some volunteers are already making their way south to help, I’m sure there will be more direct action volunteer trips organized in the coming weeks and months. Once the damage is more fully assessed from Hurricane Irma, I’m sure a whole host of other donation opportunities will arise to address the needs in those communities. There are less tangible ways to get involved, like learning about how climate change is increasing the severity of hurricanes and advocating for disaster relief spending on a governmental level.

While giving money, time and supplies are important, I suspect there is a more existential dilemma at the root of your question. Perhaps you’re wondering how you can go about your daily life while others are suffering, or maybe you’re thinking about how you might respond if you were living through one of these nightmare scenarios yourself.

In response to these questions, the best course of action is to make your neighborhood, your city and your community the best they can be. Familiarize yourself with local social service agencies. Find out who would supply babies with diapers and formula in Philadelphia if, God forbid, whole neighborhoods were suddenly devastated. Get to know your neighbors, so that if your street is evacuated, you would know who is vulnerable or alone and who might need your help.

If you’re compelled to give money to an organization in Houston, find a comparable one locally to give to as well. If you wish you could go there to volunteer, find a place here to spend some hours helping the less fortunate.

I have been constantly reminded of the part of our High Holiday liturgy that says, “Who shall perish by fire and who by water?” Of course, we don’t know what disaster may be around the corner, and while we can’t be paralyzed by fear, we can try to be prepared. We can certainly aim to be the best neighbors and community members we are capable of being. Finally, if you plan to go to services next week for Rosh Hashanah, use those words and the many others about life and death and right and wrong as a catalyst for concrete actions.

Be well,



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