Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Overwhelming Nature of Nature: Our Response to Disaster

Rosh Hashanah 2005-5766

The Overwhelming Nature of Nature: Our Response to Disaster

It is fortunately a rare occasion in our modern world that we get a chance to experience a disaster of “biblical” proportions. Events that wipe out entire cities and displace hundreds of thousands of people do not occur often. That the death total from Hurricane Katrina does not number well into the thousands or even the tens of thousands is a testament to the advances of modernity. Yet, the event itself, the destruction that it brought not only through the extensive and dramatic flooding of New Orleans, but through the force of wind and the power of waves along the entire gulf coast, demands that we remember that though humanity has become powerful, the forces of nature are vastly more so. In the past 30 years, only a handful of natural events have brought about these feelings. For those in Iowa, for certain, the events of 1993 come to mind. I would add the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the Tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004 and to a lesser extent Hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Andrew in 1992.

The views of Judaism on such disasters and how we should respond to them differ dramatically from one to another, but all of them teach us something that can help us through the tragedy.

The story of Noah was written from the perspective that God causes all things to happen. Natural disasters are, as the insurance companies have traditionally called them, “Acts of God.”

Flood Story
Genesis 7
11. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.
12. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.
13. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God brought a great flood to cover the earth and when the flood had ended, God made a promise to Noah.

Genesis 9
15. And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

Humanity’s sinfulness angers God and God causes disasters to happen because of the sinfulness of the people affected.

We also have the words of the prophet Jeremiah in this light:

Jeremiah 4:20 – 27
I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was waste and void;And the Heavens, they had no light.I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled.And the hills moved to and fro.
I beheld, and, lo, there were no people,And all the birds of the heavens were fled.I beheld and, lo, the fruitful field was a wilderness,And all the cities thereof were broken down
At the presence of the Lord,And before his fierce anger….
For thus says the Lord:"The whole land shall be desolate."

When people in New Orleans asked, “Why did this happen here?” Surely there were some who thought about the fact that most of the city is below sea level and lying in a not unusual path for a hurricane to follow. Others no doubt believed that the events were entirely random, that Hurricane Katrina, followed by Hurricane Rita, simply happened to both devastate Louisiana. Yet, others wonder what they did to anger God.

There are many out there who see what happened to New Orleans as punishment for the sins of its inhabitants, particularly those in the French Quarter. Don’t ask them why the French Quarter was spared while so many churches across the entire gulf were destroyed. Others believe that New Orleans was punished for the sins of America around the world.

Liberal minded people in general and Reform Jews in particular find this kind of thinking to be entirely wrongheaded. We do not agree with the implications of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah either, but that story has an added dimension. In it, unlike in the Flood story, there is an argument about the punishment. Abraham’s discusses with God the righteousness of collective punishment.
Sodom and Gamorrah
23. Abraham drew near, and said, Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?
24. Perhaps there are only fifty righteous inside the city; will you also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it?
25. Be it far from you to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked; and that the righteous should be as the wicked, be it far from you; Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

At this time of year, when we think of all of our faults and pray to God as Judge on high asking forgiveness for our wrong actions and blessings for the coming year, the last thing that we want to happen is not only to be punished, but to be punished for someone else’s sins! We take comfort in God’s reply to Abraham, “I will not do it for the sake of the fifty righteous” and the continuing willingness for mercy for the sake of even ten.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah would have us believe that God might have refrained, if God had wished, but decided to go ahead with the punishment. The story of Jonah, read on Yom Kippur, reinforces that possibility since it tells us that God chose not to destroy Ninevah. God, despite the sinfulness of Ninevah, turned away punishment because they changed their ways.

For many, the story of Jonah offers solace. However, if we do not believe in a God who exacts punishment of this type, these stories do not help us understand God’s role in disasters. There are other views of God that do help. Some in our Tradition see the role of God in a disaster as helping the survivors, not as causing the destruction or the suffering for any reason. As we see in First Kings:

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind- an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake-fire; but God was not in the fire. After the fire- a still, small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)

According to First Kings, God did not cause the destruction, but is in the still small voice, that is present after it. That is the perspective of Reform Judaism. As we witness the suffering and the destruction, as we respond to the needs of others, that still small voice within us urges us to reach out, give help, bring joy and elevate spirits.

As we enter the High Holidays and particularly as we endure the day of fasting for Yom Kippur, let us think about all those who are less fortunate that us, those who are poor, homeless, and suffering. As we fast, let us remember the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 58
This is the fast I desireTo unlock the fetters of wickednessUntie the cords of lawlessnessTo let the oppressed go freeBreak off every yoke;It is to share your food with the wretchedand take the poor into your home;When you see the naked, clothe them.and do not ignore your own kin. Then will your light burst through like the dawnAnd your healing will spring up quickly[When] your higher-self leads youthe weight of God is behind you.Thus [now], when you call out, God will answer;When you call out, God will say:Hineni, here I am.

At this time of year when we are particularly desirous of God’s answer to our pleas, may we strive to make ourselves beacon lights that burst through the darkness of suffering, bringing light into the darkness of those deluged by misfortune. When they call out, let us answer. Let us reach out a helping hand to them and say, “Hineni, here I am.”

There is a story that has appeared in many forms over the years that is particularly appropriate in this light and lends a bit of humor to our serious topic. It is called, “God will save me.”

God will save me- Anonymous
There was a man whose farm was located on the banks of a flood-swollen river. As the water rose, a neighbor drove up in a Jeep, urging him to leave before the farm was flooded.
Thinking that God would spare his home, the man said confidently "Oh, no, God will save me."
The water rose higher, and the man was forced to move into the second story of the farmhouse. A police boat soon came, and the officers called for the man to hurry and get into their boat.
"Oh, no, that won't be necessary." Thinking that the floodwaters would abate, the man insisted. "God will save me."
Finally the house was completely engulfed in water, and a Coast Guard helicopter swooped in to rescue the man, now perched on the roof. Again he refused, incredulous that God had allowed the flood to reach this high and sure that they would soon go away. Just then, a huge wave of water swept over the house, and the man drowned.
When he got to heaven, he stormed at God, asking WHY God had let him die when his faith had been so strong.
"What do you mean?" asked God. "I sent a Jeep, a boat, and a helicopter ... and you wouldn't budge!"
The story uses humor to teach us a very important lesson. When God answers the pleas of the suffering and says, “Hineni, here I am,” those words are often spoken through our lips or through our actions. It is we who must act. God doesn’t bring the jeep, the boat, or the helicopter. We do. It is we who reach out and perform acts of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world. We are the ones who need to provide food, clothing, and shelter. We are the ones who work to bring those in danger to safety. God helps us to do so.

When we say, “Hineni, here I am,” God acts through us.

What do we do when the challenge that faces us is beyond any that we could complete on our own?

Rabbi Tarfon tells us in Pirke Avot,
You are not required to complete the task,
But neither are you free to abstain from it.

It is not up to us to feed everyone, to clothe everyone, to house everyone. But neither can we do nothing at all. We must act, we must help, even if what help we can offer seems insignificant. Together, all of our insignificant offers become something greater, something very substantial, something that can complete the task.

It need not be a terrible tragedy on a national level or international level that urges us to say “Hineni.” Let it be nothing more than that still small voice that is present when there is someone suffering. Let it be only a whisper that compels us to help and let us shout aloud, “Hineni, here I am” ready to help and our world will be a far better place.

Khein Yehi Ratson! May it be God’s will.

Shanah Tova Tikateivu, May you be inscribed for a good new year.

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