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The Fill-up and the Top-off (of Jewish Fuel Tanks)

October 2, 2008

Writing this post from the West Coast, my mind is still thinking of things back east – my family, my friends, and my gas shortage.

Wait – my gas shortage?

Yes, for those who have not heard, Atlanta is in the midst of a terrible gas shortage, the lingering consequences of the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike on the Gulf Coast refinery operations. For almost two weeks Atlanta has been suffering though a gas shortage, the like of which that hasn’t been seen since the Carter administration – empty tanks, long lines and rising frustrations.  The other evening on our way home from Rosh Hashana dinner my wife and I drove around for 45 minutes looking for a gas station that was (1) open and (2) had a line less then thirty cars deep. Suffice it to say after passing over twenty gas stations we finally gave up (and less an 1/8 of a tank of gas for our effort).

Now there are several reasons why the gas shortage has continued, and much of it has to do with the hurricane-induced shortage of gasoline deliveries to service stations.  Of course there is also the overarching addiction that our country (and commuter-filled Atlanta) has to automobiles and the gasoline that powers them. But what I find equally if not more frustrating is the fact that the magnitude of the shortage has been increased by the behavior of so many motorists who ceaselessly stop to “top-off” their tanks to make sure that their tank is never less than full. Even if they don’t have the necessity to fill-up, many drivers – motivated by fear – are nonetheless exacerbating the shortage by constantly diminishing the supplies as soon as they arrive by “topping-off” their tank. Now for many drivers who use their vehicles all day to perform their jobs, a full tank is a legitimate concern. But for many others it is not. And this irrational demand takes a substantial toll on the limited supply and exacerbates the shortage.

So, while I was waiting in line the other day to fill up my tank, and now again as I write this post, I can’t help but compare and contrast the way drivers in Atlanta are dealing with filling up their gas tanks with the way so many Jews fill up (or don’t fill up) their personal “Jewish” tanks.

Think of each Jew as a vehicle on a Jewish journey and his/her neshema, or soul, is the tank where they store their Jewish fuel. No less than the gasoline we put in our cars, the Jewish moments of learning, caring, creating and praying fuel those Jewish journeyers onward on their chosen paths. There are plenty of ‘service stations’ along those journeys, and there are different types of experiences that serve as that Jewish fuel. Some are high-octane and some are regular. Some stations are cheaper than others, and some have better customer service. We pass them everyday (or at least have the opportunity to pass them) and sometimes we stop in to top-off our tanks, and sometimes we don’t.  Just like a few of us do with our cars, some of us drive around with our Jewish neshemot on almost empty, and some of us make sure our tanks are always filled.

But in thinking about the gasoline shortage back in Atlanta, what I am wondering is what will it take to create an environment where, just like the gas stations in Atlanta, Jews are willing to wait in line to fill-up and top-off their Jewish experiences. What would it take to motivate those individuals to seek out those Jewish moments with a craving and exasperation they express when seeking ever-so-scarce gasoline?   What kind of Jewish experiences will it take, what kind of Jewish community must we build, to inspire a sense of urgency to fill our Jewish tanks every chance we get?

As I noted above, certainly one thing the Jewish community as a whole should be mindful of is to create a Jewish infrastructure that supports ‘alternative’ approaches of Jewish experience. Much like the mantra of alternative fuels for our automobiles, we should not be too dependent on any one kind of Jewish experience, because when the quality is diminished or there is difficulty in accessing a particular experience, sometimes people just… well… run out.  Instead we need to encourage alternative approaches to providing people the Jewish fuel to fill up their neshema.  Then, in embracing these new approaches, they might find it easier to fill-up and top off, and have a greater desire to do so.

We also must continue to innovate new ideas and new ways to deliver the existing approaches to Jewish experience. Not all that is old is bad (just like not all that is new is good), and we should be mindful that as much as we need to reimagine new experiences, we also need to refine aspects of traditional experiences. Refine them in ways that create demand, not just panic, joy not frustration.

So back to thinking homeward… hopefully in a few days the gas shortage will end and we will be back to our normal ways of consuming fuel. But hopefully this momentary experience with our irrational demand for fossil fuel for our car engines will remind us of the need for our Jewish fuel used in very important engines… engines that take us into our individual and collective Jewish futures.

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