Monday, November 12, 2012

Hurricane Sandy . . . A wake up call ?

Hurricane Sandy . . . A wake up call ?

Much has been, and will continue to be written, about the calamity that was Hurricane Sandy.  Thousands rendered homeless, millions without power; an incalculable loss of money, possessions, any sense of security. . . the full extent of the suffering  is really beyond comprehension.  Economists claim: “There has not been such devastation affecting so many participants in the US economy before.”   That is to say, even when compared to the trauma  of 9/11/2001.  Although there was far more loss of life at that awful time, the calamity did not directly injure as many people as Sandy has.  For the American Orthodox Jewish community in particular, I am not aware of any incident that directly affected so many with serious hardship as this hurricane.  In fact, as time goes on, it seems that the impact is growing, as the scope grows larger and larger.

How do we think about such a tragedy from a theological perspective?   What message is Hashem sending us with such a large megaphone?   Although I claim no special insight into His inscrutable ways, it would seem that Chapters 40 and 41 of Yeshayahu are particularly germane.  (I was drawn to looking at this section, in part, due to its being the Haftorah of both Parshat Lech Lecha, immediately before Sandy, and Bereishit, two weeks before.) My thanks to Rav Yaakov Shulman of Brooklyn for pointing this out.

Chapter 40 begins with the famous words

 נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
"Comfort ye, comfort ye My people," says your God

With these words we begin the seven weeks of consolation that lead from the depths of Tisha B'Av to the heights of Rosh Hashana.  In the ensuing verses the prophet describes the Almighty as being far beyond the plans of mortal man, as He arranges for the time that Jerusalem and Zion will be restored to their proper place of world prominence, inhabited once again by His beloved people. Gently, with great love, the great shepherd will come and gather up his lambs from the clutches of their enemies.  For after all, He is so much greater than any of his creatures, who are like a drop from a bucket; mere dust before Him.  All will know that:

כָּל הַגּוֹיִם כְּאַיִן נֶגְדּוֹ מֵאֶפֶס וָתֹהוּ נֶחְשְׁבוּ לוֹ
All the nations are as naught before Him; as things of no value are they regarded by Him.

The prophet surveys all human activity, all the artisans, the princes, all those who think they have their own power, and
גַם נָשַׁף בָּהֶם וַיִּבָשׁוּ וּסְעָרָה כַּקַּשׁ תִּשָּׂאֵם
He blew on them, and they dried up, and a storm shall carry them away like straw.

If we would only
שְׂאוּ מָרוֹם עֵינֵיכֶם וּרְאוּ מִי בָרָא אֵלֶּה
Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these

we would know that

וְקוֵֹי הֹ' יַחֲלִיפוּ כֹחַ יַעֲלוּ אֵבֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִים יָרוּצוּ וְלֹא יִיגָעוּ יֵלְכוּ וְלֹא יִיעָפוּ
But those who put their hope in the Lord shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire

and thus have the power to face all that life can throw at us, confident that He will grant us strength and the capacity to deal with all adversity.

Actually, this was Hashem’s plan from time immemorial:

מִי פָעַל וְעָשָׂה קֹרֵא הַדֹּרוֹת מֵרֹאשׁ אֲנִי יְהֹוָה רִאשׁוֹן וְאֶת אַחֲרֹנִים אֲנִי הוּא
Who calls the generations from the beginning; I, the Lord, am first, and with the last ones I am He.

The islands (Bahamas?  Cuba?) first will see& fear, then the areas that are on the end of land (seacoast? Jersey shore?) will be terrified:
רָאוּ אִיִּים וְיִירָאוּ קְצוֹת הָאָרֶץ יֶחֱרָדוּ קָרְבוּ וַיֶּאֱתָיוּן

The islands shall see & fear; the ends of the earth shall tremble; they have approached and come

Some will think themselves mightier than the storm; they are not mightier than G-d's word; they feel that their works can hold Him back:

 וַיְחַזֵּק חָרָשׁ אֶת צֹרֵף מַחֲלִיק פַּטִּישׁ אֶת הוֹלֶם פָּעַם
 אֹמֵר לַדֶּבֶק טוֹב הוּא וַיְחַזְּקֵהוּ בְמַסְמְרִים לֹא יִמּוֹט
And the craftsman strengthened the smith, the one who smooths with the hammer [strengthened] the one who wields the sledge hammer; he says of the cement, "It is good," and he strengthened it with nails that it should not move.
They build, they fortify, build with nails and cement, they think themselves impervious to G-d's power; that the work of their craftsmen will be able to withstand whatever the Almighty has in store.  After first reassuring His people that they will survive all that will transpire:
אַל תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ אָנִי אַל תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי אֲנִי אֱלֹהֶיךָ
 אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
Do not fear for I am with you; be not discouraged for I am your God: I encouraged you, I also helped you, I also supported you with My righteous hand.

He tells those that oppose Him that

 תִּזְרֵם וְרוּחַ תִּשָּׂאֵם וּסְעָרָה תָּפִיץ אֹתָם וְאַתָּה תָּגִיל בַּהֹ בִּקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּתְהַלָּל
You shall winnow them, and a wind shall carry them off, and a great storm shall scatter them, and you shall rejoice with the Lord, with the Holy One of Israel shall you praise yourself.

And though that great wind will cause tremendous destruction, which will lead to widespread hardship and the demolition of His enemies, Israel is called upon not to have fear:

 וְאַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתִּיךָ זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי
But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me,

Those that oppose Hashem will be gone:
הֵן יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיִכָּלְמוּ כֹּל הַנֶּחֱרִים בָּךְ יִהְיוּ כְאַיִן וְיֹאבְדוּ אַנְשֵׁי רִיבֶךָ
Behold all those incensed against you shall be ashamed and confounded; those who quarreled with you shall disappear and be lost.
As the chapter ends:

הֵן כֻּלָּם אָוֶן אֶפֶס מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם רוּחַ וָתֹהוּ נִסְכֵּיהֶם
Behold them all, their deeds are naught, of no substance;
wind and nothingness are their molten images.

Thus, in brief, the prophet warns later generations that a time will come before the end of days when, primarily through the power of wind, He will show once and for all, that man's arrogance, as expressed through the objects and structures he builds, strengthened or not with cement and nails, are no match for the Almighty when he allows his wind to blow and cause havoc and destruction.   Using just wind, a barely tangible medium, He can easily wipe away the strongest structures of Man.  Virtually all that Man creates is after all, according to the wisest of all men, mere הבל הבלים, vapor and emptiness.  (In modern Hebrew הבל  is the vapor that is created by a breath on a cold day, for a moment looking like it exists and gone in an instant).

Again, one hesitates before suggesting what lessons we are being taught. 

Some are suggesting that in keeping with Parshat Lech Lecha, rather than rebuilding ruined homes here, it is time to take the insurance money and head, finally, to Eretz Yisrael.  While I agree with the sentiment, and feel that in general all of us need to ask ourselves constantly whether we are justified in not taking advantage of the blessed opportunity our generation has been given to move to our true home, I recognize that this might not be the answer for everyone at this time.

And so, we rebuild here in the USA.  But as we rebuild, perhaps we ought to reflect.  Do we really need to build the types of mansions that so many Orthodox Jews have built themselves?  With the “tuition crisis” and the struggles facing so many worthy institutions, with the many people struggling to keep up with the demands being made for shuidduch “neccesities” and the economic crisis in Eretz Yisrael, is it not time to perhaps rethink some of our priorities?  Are we really going to rebuild as if we are staying in the Five Towns and Seagate and Belle Harbor for the next hundreds of years?   Is it not obscene that, as I heard just the other day, an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan is completing a new building that will cost close to 50 million dollars?   Has “Next Year in Jerusalem” been reduced to nothing more than an advertising campaign for tour operators who bring crowds for the holidays who have absolutely no interest in staying? Have we not lost our minds?

Let us fervently hope and pray that all the suffering should end, that everyone is restored to their homes in safety and blessing, and that the losses, financial or otherwise, be restored and then some.

But let us not forget this wake up call, and think again about the momentous hour in which we have been given it.

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