Sure I read the paper. Sure I looked at some photos online. But it was sunny here in southern California. None of the news about Hurricane Sandy and its horrific aftermath was quite real to me. (“That’s terrible; please pass the chicken.”)

“Weren’t you concerned about us? You didn’t even call!” admonished a friend.

“Uh…well…I was busy and…” They lived inland. No flooding. Maybe they lost power. We’ve lost power before; what’s the big deal? There are candles, flashlights, high-powered flashlights, gas stove tops…

But, of course, I forgot about the cold, the bitter cold. We’ve been having a heat wave. And what is like to lose power for days on end, not just a few hours in the middle of the night? I started to readjust my thinking, try to deepen my sympathy.

But I was busy. My life is hectic. I did have other things on my mind. My world had narrowed…

Then I took a trip to the east coast for a wedding (Mazel Tov Ari and Zahava!).Although we saw little of the actual devastation, we saw the lines for gas – blocks and blocks of them. Hours and hours of waiting. Once again, we were spoiled, having picked up a rental car at the airport equipped with a full tank of gas. (We could probably have sold it even for double what Hertz charges!) And then I started hearing the stories – and meeting the people. Sitting across from me at the well-attended wedding (I think everyone was grateful for the opportunity to celebrate) was a family from Far Rockaway whose home was submerged under water. A simple home, years of family life and needs – gone.

At another table sat a woman who had watched her bedroom furniture float down the street. It would be funny if it weren’t tragic. And yet another guest was a newlywed who had just used their wedding gifts to set up home. Nothing was left. Her husband was wearing sandals on his feet (and it was cold!), all that remained of his possessions.

I was bombarded with story after story, overwhelmed by the loss and the pain, jolted out of my complacency and lack of sensitivity.

But that wasn’t all. I heard the amazing stories of kindness as well – how every home from Brooklyn, Queens, Passaic and more had taken in “refugees” from the storm, often more than one family at a time. How there were posted schedules for washing machine use and pooling of culinary skills. The amount of hospitality and generosity was staggering and moving. I was an outsider here as well. I wanted to be part of that kindness but I didn’t live there; I wasn’t a full participant in the drama.

But it’s not about me. And my job is to do what I can to help, and to work on my empathy skills, to break out of my self and family-centered existence and to pay attention to other people’s lives and needs. It’s too easy (I like to think I’m not alone here) to be wrapped up in the demands of our daily lives and to become oblivious to the lives of others. We want to focus on the individuals, not the institutions.

As I flew home, I made a commitment to become better, different. And yet as I contemplated my schedule upon return, I had to stop myself from reverting to old patterns. My instinct was to contract inwards as I concentrated on all the work I had to do to catch up (like write my blog for aish.com) and to prepare for Shabbos. But wait! Sure we’re having guests but they’re not moving in with us. I stopped myself. I need to expand outward. My preparations are nothing compared to the stories I heard. No one’s wet clothes are sitting in my laundry room waiting for a turn at the dryer. No one else’s food is in my freezer. No strange family appears at the breakfast table. I have it easy; nothing to complain about, nothing to be stressed about.

And now the appeals are flooding my inbox. I don’t know how to distinguish between organizations but again, it’s too easy to make excuses and just not give. It’s too easy to once again distract myself from the pain. So I am thinking of a more personal mission. There is yet another young couple who lost all their material possessions (I think we should hesitate before saying they lost “everything”). I heard that the woman is going to “register” at Bed, Bath and Beyond so people can give to her in exactly the way she wants and needs (which I always say is the way giving is supposed to be). I’d like to contribute to her not-so-bridal registry. I’d like to help get them back on their feet. If you would like to participate, email me and I will send you the information.

The Almighty should help us all to really open our hearts to our brothers and sisters in need.