It was exactly 6 years ago on the Jewish calendar that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. This time it’s the East Coast that’s bearing the brunt of Hurricane Irene. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell put it best when he warned, “Saturday is going to be a horrendous day for travel and Sunday probably won’t be any better.” In anticipation, airlines and trains have shut down, shoreline communities have been evacuated as city after city braces for the big storm.
The good news is that Irene was downgraded yesterday to a category 2 hurricane. The bad news is that it still sustained winds of 110-120mph. As Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service said, “Weakening does not mean weak.” Right now the storm is probably approaching New York and New Jersey and will make its way up to New England. We pray for the safety of all in its path.
The last bad Hurricane I remember hitting New York was when I was a child 50 years ago. In my 1st congregation in the Atlantic City area of New Jersey, I remember a hurricane missing us on the 1st day of Sukkot. But after returning home from shule for a special children’s luncheon in my Sukkah, we found the Sukkah in pieces on the ground of the backyard—the work of the strong winds at tail of the hurricane. It was a beautiful lesson for Sukkot that we are all subject to the fate of nature.
In anticipation of Irene, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Kenneth Brander sent out “Shabbat Protocols In Case of a Hurricane” for rabbis to send out to their congregations. Let me read you some of it:
- If a hurricane is happening on Shabbat, stay home. We will lain 2 Torah portions next week.
- · If there is no electricity on Shabbat and storm is over. If safe...there will be a minyan only during daylight hours.
- · Assume the Eruv is down.
- Carrying is permitted to allow a baby, infirm seniors or a child traumatized by the event to function without compromise.
- Use yahrzeit or hurricane candles lit before Shabbat placed in designated locations.
- Hang/place lit flashlights with fresh batteries in key locations before Shabbat. It is recommended to use LED flashlights because they will last longer.
- TV or radio should be left on in a side room for alerts.
Invariably, each week’s Torah portion informs and adds meaning to the events of what’s currently happening in our world. So what does today’s Torah portion have to say about all this? It begins: R’ey, anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom bracha uklala, “Behold, I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” In other words, it’s up to us. We can choose a life of blessing or a life of cursing. The Torah implores us to choose the blessing. It seems that Irene has not caused anywhere near the damage of Katrina. Does that mean that East Coast people made better choices than those in New Orleans 6 years ago? Do hurricanes turn away from places that are virtuous and take more devastating aim at places that are sinful?
Some had suggested that Katrina was Gd’s punishment for the proliferation of gambling casinos in the Gulf Coast and the over-indulgent partying of Mardi Gras. In one of the most offensive comments after Katrina, a Kuwaiti official, Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, wrote: “But before I went to sleep, I opened the Koran and…read (13:31): ‘The disaster will keep striking the unbelievers for what they have done, or it will strike areas close to their territory, until the promise of Allah comes to pass.’” In other words, disasters are punishments for the victims.
While Judaism will not go that far, there are many passages in the Talmud (Shabbat 118b) that tell us the reverse—if only we Jews would do exactly the right thing—like observe 2 Shabbosim in a row—great things will happen to us like the messiah coming immediately. There is a verse in Isaiah (60:22) that the messiah will come, b’ita achishena, “in its time I will hasten it.” The verse seems to be contradictory. Rashi explains: “If they are worthy, I will hasten it; if they are not, it will be in its time.” Again, the message is: We have the power to bring the messiah. It is not that we are waiting for the messiah. It is that the messiah is waiting for us.
So when we do Gd’s work in perfecting the world, we are the blessing. What is the curse? When we act against Gd’s will, allowing the world to remain unredeemed.
In the Haftorah for this Shabbos, Isaiah consoles the homeless Jews who were exiled off their land calling them: Aniya soara lo nuchama, “O’ afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one.” We say to the tens of millions of people of the East Coast today, “O’ afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled ones,” be comforted for you are not alone. We will be there for you if needed.
What was the blessing in Hurricane Katrina? It was the thousands of people putting their lives on the line to rescue survivors. It was all those who opened their homes to provide a place for the homeless—many of them here in Atlanta. It was those who had the courage to rebuild. It was all of us who donated money to help the victims. And it was putting in effect what was learned so that Irene would be less catastrophic.
What was the curse in Hurricane Katrina? It was those who have taken to looting and stealing, not for food and water but for sneakers and televisions and computers. It was also those who knew that the levees of New Orleans could not stand up to a major hurricane, but were not ready to do what was necessary to make the city safe. And it was those who saw human tragedy and blamed the victim, who said that their evil behavior brought on this tragedy.
There is, in addition, a unique special spiritual lesson for us as we begin the month of Elul this Tuesday, the month before Rosh Hashanah. It’s best expressed in a letter that was sent to a colleague, Rabbi Ivan Lerner in South Africa, from his son Ari this week in Miami. He writes:
Thank you for your call this afternoon. Baruch Hashem, all is okay. We have the all-clear for our area (here in Miami). Just a few thoughts about hurricanes and this season…
Every year, there is a “Hurricane Season” in this part of the world. Every year, people are provided with lists of provisions and items to retain before the season begins. There is no monetary loss by being prepared at the onset of the season, for the items that are acquired can be either consumed at the end of the season or re-used the following year.
However, whenever there is an imminent threat of a hurricane, the stores are mobbed. Water, canned goods and batteries are hoarded. It is as if there was never any expectation of a storm to ever reach our region. Retailers stay open all night, lumber yards and hardware stores take in, in one day, what they typically make in 2 months.
The point is that the majority of people do not prepare in the beginning of the season as instructed. Instead, they wait until the storm seems imminent, and then they are forced into overcrowded and under-supplied stores to try to grab whatever they believe will help them to survive the hurricane.
So, too, we find ourselves as Jews, facing the Yamim Noraim. Whereas the entire year we could have prepared ourselves, the majority of us find ourselves running to shul once the imminence of these awesome days are upon us. The difference is that we have become spoiled by the vast warehouse of mercy that G-d provides for us, even in the 11th hour...
Time and time again, you hear…from people who have lost most of their personal property, “Thank G-d, we are okay.” Suddenly, the things that were most important in their lives pale by comparison to their actual lives. This is true in the hours or days after the disaster.
It is my belief that people who are in the midst of a disaster are suddenly greater attuned to the strength of a Higher and Almighty Spirit and receive a glimpse of His awesome power. Of course, shortly after the dust has settled, and the rubble is cleared, there is a necessary physical re-building. However, there is also another rebuilding which takes place. It is the re-building of the blinders of awareness. It is the wall that blocks those emotions that were felt during the height of fear for their lives; the blocking of the view of the awesomeness behind the events that occurred.
It seems almost as if spiritual awareness and material awareness have a difficult time co-existing; that when there is a complete removal of all things physical, there is a tremendous strengthening of all things spiritual. Conversely, as soon as the physical is rebuilt, the spiritual diminishes in direct proportion.
He makes the exquisite point that we need not wait for the big storm in our lives to strengthen our relationship with Gd. He goes on to implore us to do it now as we enter the month of Elul which approaches Rosh Hashanah and be ready for the New Year, just as those living in the hurricane zones should buy the necessary provisions months before the season begins.
My friends, the Torah tells us that Gd sets before us a blessing and a curse. The curse is to distance yourself from Gd and act with selfishness. The blessing is to be Gd’s partner in perfecting this world as a kingdom of Gd—helping the victims of crisis. Hurricanes are awful events. Hopefully Irene will pass without much damage. But they’re also opportunities for us to be watchful and strengthen our relationship with Gd as we approach Rosh Hashanah, doing our part to make this a better world. Gd is waiting. May we make of our lives a blessing and not a curse and may everyone in Irene’s path be safe and. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis