There’s an ancient Greek legend about Antaeus, the son of Poseidon and Gaia. He was a giant wrestler of incredible strength and invariably destroyed all his opponents. But then Antaeus met a foe that he couldn’t defeat: Hercules.
How did Hercules vanquish Antaeus? Hercules lifted Antaeus off the ground! As long as Antaeus stood firmly on earth, he was unconquerable; but once he was uprooted, he became vulnerable and his strength left him. Hercules was victorious because he understood that a rootless Antaeus would be sapped of his power, unable to stand against the strength of Hercules.
The legend points to an important lesson: people who are well-grounded are better able to withstand life’s challenges; people who lose their footing, who become rootless, are sapped of power. We witnessed this on Monday in Moore, Oklahoma, as a tornado—more powerful than the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—devastated this suburban city in less than an hour, lifting off the ground and destroying everything in its wake. Everyone in its path that could not get below ground was uprooted and killed. Did you follow the media coverage? The pictures of the devastation are beyond what we can fathom. Sometimes there are no words.
The tornadoes that hit Oklahoma for 3 days leave us speechless. The storm was 22 miles long with over 200mph winds that flattened 13,000 homes, a hospital and 2 elementary schools. At least 24 people were killed including 9 children and 237 injured. Over a hundred people have been pulled alive from the rubble—many after 24 hours! The Plaza Towers Elementary School filled with children was completely leveled, and parents walked for miles through the town’s rubble to reach their children who were being pulled out of the debris. Neighborhood volunteers and parents formed a line to help pass the rescued children from one set of arms to another until all the surviving children had been carried to the triage center set up in a nearby parking lot.
Crews lifted broken doors, moved sections of shattered walls and tossed aside bricks looking for survivors, as cadaver dogs sniffed through the rubble. Kim Limke, 40, in Oklahoma City’s Westmoor subdivision said: “Can you imagine a lion, like a huge lion? You mix it with a freight train and that’s what it was like. Scariest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like a freight train came out of a lion’s mouth. For blocks around, houses were reduced to heaps of rubble and trees were stripped of their leaves. The air was tinged with the smell of wet pine from wrecked homes.”
Rhonda Crosswhite, one of the 6th grade teachers at Plaza Tower Elementary School, heroically lay down on top of her students to shield them from the rubble. “I was in a bathroom stall with some kids and it just started coming down, so I laid on top of them. I never thought I was going to die. The whole time I just kept screaming to them, ‘We’re going to be fine, we’re going to be fine, I’m protecting you.” All her students are now safe, and their parents credit their children’s survival to their teacher’s amazing courage.
For the parents whose children did not survive, Monday night was endless as they ran across the debris in a panic, holding onto their last vestiges of hope until the bodies were found. Can you begin to imagine? Whole city blocks were destroyed beyond recognition. Cars were tossed into trees and crumpled into piles. People’s homes were reduced to splinters of wood in a matter of seconds. Tens of thousands of people are now homeless. A family of 4, including their baby, died in their home as they attempted to seek shelter in their freezer.
The funerals are beginning and the stories are emerging of their lives and dreams and of their final moments. It feels reminiscent of the shooting last December in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But this time there’s no madman, no face to the evil, no debate about revealing or concealing a killer’s name. If anything, there are only the stories of courage, and heroism, friendship and love, concern for neighbors amid the unthinkable devastation of the whirlwind.
On this Memorial Day weekend as we remember those who fell in service to our country, let’s take time as well to remember the victims in Oklahoma. Oklahoma, which is 850 miles away, might seem remote, but remember…it was not that long ago that a tornado dropped down here in Dunwoody. It was not as powerful, thank Gd, but it can happen even here!
Whenever natural disaster strikes we hear people ask: How could Gd allow this to happen? The answer is in short, we don’t know! We do know, however, 2 things. 1st of all, Gd has created this world with a special balance of the forces of nature in order to make it inhabitable. That balance of nature sometimes includes tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes. It’s up to us to learn about the world of nature and protect ourselves. For example, one should not live in a trailer in a hurricane zone! Why are there so many trailer parks in southern Florida? And so one should ask: Why wasn’t the Towers Elementary School and tens of thousands of Oklahoma homes built with a protective basement room? Even Dorothy’s family in the “Wizard of Oz” had that!
2nd, we must understand that even with all the advancements in science and technology, there’s a limit to how much we can understand about our world. Or as Rabbi Yanai puts it in Ethics of the Fathers (4:19): Eyn b’yadeynu, lo mishalvat harisha-im v’af lo mi-yisurey hatzadikim, “It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.” It is not in our power to understand why tragedies like this week in Oklahoma happen.
Where was Gd to be found in Oklahoma? This question and the images on TV of the devastatingly powerful tornado winds remind me of what the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13) said: “And, behold, Gd passed by, and a great and powerful wind smashing mountains and braking rocks went before Gd; but Gd was not in the wind.” I never understood this verse—how wind could smash mountains and brake rocks—till this week. Isaiah continues: “After the wind came an earthquake; but Gd was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire; but Gd was not in the fire.” Why was Gd not in the wind or earthquake or fire? It’s because although Gd created nature, nature is not Gd. The wind, earthquake and fire are not Gd. They are the creations of Gd as part of the forces of nature. And Isaiah concludes, “After the fire came a still small voice.” And there he found Gd.
Gd in Oklahoma is found in the still small voice that motivates thousands upon thousands to help in the rescue…and He is found in our hearts that grieve in solidarity and contribute to rebuilding.
Our hearts go out to the people of Oklahoma as they struggle to pick up the pieces. We pray that Gd will comfort the mourners. We pray that the destroyed homes, schools and hospitals be rebuilt quickly and may they find comfort from their losses. And we pray for the people of Oklahoma as Moses did at the end of today’s parsha (Numbers 12:13) for his sister Miriam: Keyl na, r’fa na lahem, “Please Gd, heal them now.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis