With Hurricane Gustav poised to strike the Gulf Coast, John McCain cancelled much of the RNC programming, clearly seeking to distinguish his own crisis response from George Bush’s post-Katrina dithering three years ago.
Of course, there are differences. McCain is not (yet) president, and has no power or responsibility to deal with the approaching crisis. And abbreviating the RNC is not going to help anyone two-thousand miles away in the face of the storm.
Nevertheless, McCain wants to communicate the message that Americans cannot go on with business as usual when millions of our countrymen stand in the path of impending disaster. It’s a show of solidarity, with no practical effect except the subtle lesson that every individual is in some way a symbol of every other individual. When part of the country suffers, the whole country suffers. We simply cannot carry on as if everything is normal.
But it’s a tricky call. How many have to suffer before we must pause in our routines to acknowledge their suffering and empathize with their pain? A thousand? A hundred thousand? A million?
Only a few weeks ago, the Jewish community went from the joy and exuberance of Shabbos to the mourning and weeping of Tisha B’Av in a matter of moments, switching our emotional gears from overdrive to reverse in an instant. Judaism teaches us that we have more control over our moods than we might think. But it takes thoughtfulness, focus, effort, contemplation, discipline, and leadership — especially leadership — to show us how to direct our actions in order to awaken the appropriate emotional response.
Empathy is not always convenient, but it is essential to preserving our humanity.