04/05/2012 03:00 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2012

Slouching Toward Freedom

'Geography is destiny,' but it also depends what's in your wallet.

We saw it lying on the ground, a stain against the otherwise immaculate Los Angeles sidewalk. "HOMELESS. Lost job, Lost home, Trying not to lose hope," read the abandoned square of cardboard in neatly written letters. As we get closer to the Jewish holiday of Passover, a holiday dominated by the theme of exile and redemption, I've been thinking about what would giving "hope" to someone really look like? Is it giving a quarter or giving change in another currency? Would it be a subtle or seismic shift in the dynamics of responsibility?

Eighty-five million people have watched KONY 2012, a video about the Ugandan guerilla group and its leader. A fraction of those may see the documentary "Bully," about another kind of childhood violence in our own society. But I wonder how many walked away from their theatres or computer screens having seen Bully or KONY 2012 and continued past the people who are homeless or struggling in their midst -- possibly even while re-posting KONY 2012 or sharing their indignation about school violence on Facebook or Twitter.

Clicking "play" is too often as far as we'll go in getting involved. Watching documentaries like "Bully" or KONY 2012 make it is easy to feel indignation or pity about suffering across the planet or violence in a seemingly random school. The glimpse into human pain allows us to feel a jolt of moral outrage without any real consequence. But if it doesn't lead to deeper action, we risk turning these films into pop culture curiosities on par with the "Jersey Shore." Too often they only fulfill our fascination with abomination. Time will tell what will happen with "Bully," but look how quickly the KONY 2012 story shifted to the erratic behavior of its director. No human suffering is reality TV. It is just reality. And the bystanders are implicated with the guilty not the innocent.

We say we want to help improve the world, but not if it's an inconvenience. Not if it means getting our hands dirty let alone our conscience.

Not much is dirty in Westwood: nothing seems out of place, and litter appears to be caught in mid-drop by some unseen hand. The yards look photo-shopped and the homes like architectural renderings. And that is why the sweat-stained square of cardboard lying on the sidewalk stood out. "Trying not to lose hope." The writing seemed like a wormhole to an alternate reality. A reality that causes most of us to carve wide arcs to avoid, rather than risk the gravitational pull of a response.

Picking up the sign, I wondered about the history of the person who wrote it and imagined it falling from a bag as he continued down the street. I wondered where this person slept and what he thought of the word "disparity" -- if it was a he. "Where did he get a sharpie to write that sign," my colleague wondered aloud.

We were in Westwood with a group of college-age Repair the World interns who are striving to activate their peers to be more than bystanders in their world. We were provoking them to realize that people who are homeless need to viewed as part of our communities, not part of the street. We were challenging them to consider questions of place and access. To be more attuned to their neighborhoods and their world. This idea of being tuned into the world, and the experiences of those around us, is at the heart of the Jewish narrative.

Jews the world over are about to celebrate Passover and reenact the Exodus from Egypt. We will lift the matzah, the bread of affliction and recall our journey from slavery to freedom because God heard the people's cry and Moses not only saw their suffering, but responded to it. We will open our doors and call into the street, "Let all who are hungry come and eat."

But I wonder what we would do if the person who wrote, "Trying not to lose hope," on that cardboard sign in L.A. were to be standing on our doorstep. Let alone one of the children in the KONY 2012 video. Would we invite them in? Would we give them some food and send them on their way or would we say something awkward and simply close the door. The ultimate message of Passover is not that we were slaves and now we are free. The ultimate message is really a question. What are we doing with our freedom?

It will take more than armchair activism, eating a piece of matzah or simply retelling a story. As we enjoy the bread of freedom this Passover we need to realize in school hallways, on streets and in jungles the world over many are forced to eat the bread of affliction, if they eat at all. They are still struggling, "not to lose hope." And as long as we remain bystanders that truth will keep us all in exile.