When You Don’t Know What to Do, Do What You Know

A reflection from Avi Eisen, Federation Shaliach (Israeli emissary) to Beth Sholom Congregation

In my initial month as a ship commander in the navy, facing my first major challenge wasn’t something I had anticipated so soon. Despite over three years of intense preparation, nothing could have prepared me for the frustration of our ship’s engine failing just as winter began in November 2017. Our mission was critical: patrolling the Israel-Gaza border, a responsibility that meant everything to me. Yet, here we were, immobile, unable to relieve my best friend’s crew due to the stubborn engine issue that defied even the expertise of our best mechanics.

Amid this challenging moment, a simple broom lying in the corner of the ship’s mess area caught my eye, unexpectedly teaching me one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned: “When you do not know what to do, do what you know.” It was a moment of clarity in the midst of uncertainty. Our ship may have been stuck, but that didn’t mean we had to be idle. While fixing the engine was beyond our capacity, maintaining cleanliness and morale within the ship was something we could manage. We didn’t know how to solve the engine problem, but we knew how to clean, cook, and take care of our living space. This shift in focus not only improved the condition of our ship, but also ignited a newfound energy among the crew.

This ethos of taking initiative, of doing what one knows in times of uncertainty, resonates with me even more deeply in the context of our current, broader national challenges. Following the surprise attack by Hamas on October 7th, the entire nation was thrust into a state of shock and mourning. Yet, amidst the despair, there was a collective move towards action. So many heroes simply acted on that day.

In the Greater Washington community and beyond, both individuals and groups, particularly young leaders, stepped forward to establish emergency funds and support networks, embodying the spirit of resilience and responsibility. This proactive stance, this commitment to doing what one can, echoed the sentiments of my great-grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose life story taught me about the power of perseverance and the importance of doing the best with what one knows.

As we approach Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), the weight of loss and the longing for those still missing or held captive becomes more pronounced. Being away from Israel, I often find myself wrestling with feelings of helplessness, wondering how I can contribute meaningfully from afar. Yet, reflecting on the lessons of resilience, of action within one’s capacity, I’m reminded that there’s always something we can do, no matter how small it may seem. This lesson, learned amidst the trials at sea and echoed in the stories of my ancestors, continues to guide me, reinforcing the belief that in the face of adversity, taking action, however modest, is a powerful step towards making a difference.