Is it raining there? I ask Anna on the phone.
No, she says. It's so weird -- I'm hearing about Pennsylvania and New Jersey on the radio, and we're getting nothing in Manhattan.
It's weird here, too, I tell her: we're in Geneva, New York, only a couple of hours from the worst of the flooding. Binghamton has had large evacuations, National Guard on the streets, the Wilkes-Barre area the same. We had a cloudburst yesterday, but today is dry in our part of the Finger Lakes.
Weird, when you yourself are fine but you're with people who are not. A woman's son has moved into her house, his own being uninhabitable; she thinks her own is not far behind, as the waters in thier town have yet to crest. They've only been in touch by cellphone; she is up here, where things are fine.
Prayer connects those of us who are fine with those of us who are not. Television and radio do, too, but there we only see and hear their voices and images: we can choose not to connect and just change the channel. To pray for someone in need is to get into the boat with him, to run up the hill to higher ground with her. To pray for someone in need is to agree to let the world of another interfere with your world. Touch your world, and change it.
Is it a duty? In Judaism, the mitzvah -- the good deed -- isn't an option. It's an obligation. You don't get extra points with God for doing a good deed -- you have to do the mitzvah in order to be an observant Jew. Even secular Jews, who do not keep the welter of other Jewish laws, remember the obligation of the mitzvah, and have taught us all to expect that all Jews will have a strong commitment of social justice. We're always surprised when we meet one who seems not to care much about it.
Besides the many kinds of hands-on service a person might render to someone less fortunate, prayer itself is a mitzvah. Like all mitzvah, it connects us to the ones we may not even see, connects us through the medium of their need and our ability to care about it. Like all mitzvah, prayer teaches us to be human.
We often say that a person who offers extraordinary service to someone else is a saint. Perhaps. But a Jew probably wouldn't say that. He would use another word: he'd call that good person a mensch.
Which is just to say, to be precise, that he is a human being.