Can You Hear the Ukrainian Cries?
It felt like something out of a movie. One month ago, a global superpower invaded a sovereign country hoping to come, see and conquer before supper. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Russian forces were met with Ukrainian people unwilling to relinquish the land they call home. Bearing everything in its arsenal, Ukraine has since been fighting for its life so successfully that even experts are perplexed at Russia’s military miscalculation.
On second thought, it felt like something out of a history book — our history book.
The parallels between Israel’s War of Independence and the Russia-Ukraine War are striking to me: Both are telltales of the ancient David-Goliath faceoff with the former’s very existence on the line. In 1948, Goliath was the Arab states hoping to destroy the Jewish State, and in 2022, Goliath is Russia seeking to overrun Ukraine. In both wars, despite international support or lack thereof, the promise of tomorrow rested with David and David alone. When I thought about the war in that way, it took on a different tone.
All my life, I learned about Israel and its military successes against all odds. The constant presence it held in my educational upbringing, along with my personal closeness to Jewish pain, made that war sit in a place closer to my heart. Those associations made the Ukrainian crisis feel different to me. When my relation to Ukraine shifted from a country abroad to a country I could see, it became less like a circumstance to analyze and more like a crisis to fear. Ukraine as an abstraction is shocking, but Ukraine as a reality is horrifying.
As of this writing, Ukraine has seen over 2,400 civilian casualties with 3.7 million refugees fleeing the country, but we are so desensitized to international crises that we read right over those numbers. The Beren and Wilf campuses are home to around 2,200 students; 3.6 million people are more than double the population of Manhattan. What would a twice-over empty Manhattan look like? Could we, God forbid, imagine the casualties to more people than our own student body?
These relative comparisons are also limited. Thinking of individuals crowding in their homes for shelter is painful, but it cannot hold a candle to looking at real pictures. Photographs show us the reality: Citizens carry clothing and personal belongings from a small house aghast in flames; a portrait of a young woman sits beside her grave with a bouquet of roses; two men, one woman and one child lie lifeless on the streets, their multi-colored winter coats zipped all the way with streaks of blood across their faces.
To think of Ukrainian suffering is almost insufferable. As valiant as their efforts may be, the war seems unwinnable. When their horrors become something real to us, it finally sets in that they are helpless in that war. You can almost hear the Ukrainian cries that rise to the skies with the smoke of its decimated cities. “I cry, ‘Violence,’ but am not answered. I shout, but can get no justice” (Iyov 19:7).
That helplessness is unbearable — not just their helplessness, but ours. One of the unfortunate realities of international atrocities, and why I believe we so quickly become emotionally detached from them, is that we can do so little to change them. There is a great distance between what we want to do and what we can do. We are desensitized to them by necessity.
Yet, like most, I still find a restlessness within myself that is enraged by Russia’s active violation of Ukraine. My soul aches from its inability to right this wrong. In that regard, we are not allowed to simply step back; as Rabbi Tarfon teaches us in Pirkei Avot, “It is not on you to finish the work, but you are not free to neglect it” (2:15). We may not be able to save Ukraine, but we are also not free to abandon it. I look to the Yeshiva University community for inspiration on embodying this.
In the days after Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, YU spoke up and issued a statement standing in solidarity with Ukraine. Since that first day, the Glueck Beit Midrash and various minyanim have been saying Tehillim for Ukraine’s safety. The following Monday, a roundtable of YU political scientists and historians broke down Russia-Ukraine history and the unfolding war. Several other panels have been held since, and the Tehillim have continued, but the efforts did not stop there. Two weeks ago, YU led nearly 30 students on a humanitarian aid mission to Ukraine, an experience that surely changed lives. On top of that, the university collected more than $75,000 for Ukraine. This is the essence of Rabbi Tarfon’s message.
It hurts to think about Ukraine, and that makes sense. But at the same time, we cannot turn a blind eye to our Jewish and human families when they need us most. When they cry, “Violence,” we must answer. When they shout, we must fight.