Thousands of Afghans rushed to Kabul's airport trying to flee the country as the Taliban seized power. (Photo/RNS-Wakil Kohsar-AFP via Getty Images)
Thousands of Afghans rushed to Kabul's airport trying to flee the country as the Taliban seized power. (Photo/RNS-Wakil Kohsar-AFP via Getty Images)

Haiti to Afghanistan to right here. Is there an antidote for all this hopelessness?

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Recently I drove from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.

A couple of hours into my trip, as I drove through dense wildfire smoke near Lake Tahoe, I saw a WhatsApp message pop up on my phone from a friend in Haiti whom I had become close with when I lived there in 2013. He was OK, but he forwarded me a video of the devastation from the Aug. 14 earthquake in Haiti that had been making the rounds.

I thought it would let up, but the smoke continued into Nevada. Soon after I crossed into the state, a text from my sister popped up on my phone. I saw the word “Kabul” in it and I knew instantly what the news was. Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. Twenty years of war; good Afghans putting themselves on the line for democracy, women’s rights and decency; and American blood and dollars — all for nothing. A humanitarian disaster loomed.

As I drove across Nevada, the haze from climate change–induced wildfires persisted.

I considered what music or podcasts to listen to. The day after Trump won in 2016, I had listened to the podcast “Keepin’ It 1600,” the predecessor of the clever, upbeat and funny “Pod Save America.”

I felt that the young former Obama staffers who made the podcast that day in 2016 were grossly ill-equipped to make sense of what had just happened. They were sad, shocked and apologetic about their mistaken predictions, but it somehow didn’t feel like enough to me. This moment was deeper than they wanted to go. It felt as if the news was supporting Hegel’s assertion that history is a “slaughter bench.” Some days history can feel like idealism continuously being snuffed out by the evil, tragedy and entropy that lead to so much human suffering.

On my drive to Utah, my next stop was a gas station in Nevada. I glanced at the New York Times front page. “Taliban Seize Afghanistan: U.S. Scrambles to Evacuate Americans.”

I thought of an Afghan acquaintance from college who is a journalist in his home country. What will become of him? I thought of what it means that the United States is a top emitter of greenhouse gases and we’re so broken when it comes to collective action that we can’t even get everyone vaccinated. I thought about the children I lived with when I taught a journalism program in Haiti in 2013. What will their lives look like?

There certainly weren’t easy sources of hope in a week like that.

What I do know, however, is that the only responses that hold water for me on such days begin with an understanding that we can’t possibly conceive of all the suffering in the world.

As I sped across Utah’s salt flats, with haze still in the air, I was reminded of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Lamentations. Lamentations uses poetry to describe in gruesome detail the massacre following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Lamentations doesn’t provide answers. But what it does do is express despair, anger and hopelessness while also evoking yud-hey-vav-hey, God’s unpronounceable name.

The Christian scholar of the Hebrew Bible Walter Brueggemann writes that praising yud-hey-vav-hey helps us imagine a human existence that dramatically reorients itself to prioritize justice. Brueggemann describes that with Moses’ evocation of yud-hey-vav-hey came “the speaking of a new name [of God] that redefines all social perception.”

In contemporary times it may seem trite to offer prayers for the people of Afghanistan, for our grandchildren or for the people of Haiti. And yet, in a week like last week, the only approaches that make sense to me involve a God that is mysterious and totally beyond us, but that helps us to imagine a world that is radically different.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

George Altshuler
George Altshuler

George Altshuler is the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He is on track to be ordained from Hebrew Union College in 2023. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and staff writer in J.’s newsroom.