Several years ago, I worked with a small congregation. We held our High Holy Day services outside, in a local park. When the weather was good, it was amazingly wonderful. Calm, peaceful, warm, beautiful. With tiki torches surrounding us for light, stars twinkling through the tree branches overhead, and a deep sense of wholeness permeating our souls, we truly felt a oneness with the world around us. In the silent moments of our evening worship we listened to the haunting calls of the owls. During the daytime, the song of the birds was the only choir we needed. We all loved those services.
But one year, the weather didn’t cooperate. It was cold and stormy, and there were tornado watches up for all of Rosh HaShannah evening. We called the park and arranged to do our services in a 150 year old barn. We would sit on hay bales. They promised us lights. Unfortunately, they forgot the lights. Thankfully, we had flashlights in case the power went out.
We trudged through the mud to the barn in the darkness, lit only by a few flashlights. We felt like we were being pelted by sharp, stinging needles the rain was falling so hard. It was a relief to make it to the barn. We closed the barn doors and sat gratefully on the bales of hay. The lightning and thunder began. There were cracks everywhere in the planks that made up the walls and roof of the barn. We could see the lightning bolts through those cracks. There was so much lightning it seemed the night time sky was white.
The winds picked up. The doors started blowing open and slamming shut. The storm worsened. It was terrifying. We didn’t know if there was a tornado warning or not. We wondered if we should stay or leave. We felt so vulnerable. So miniscule compared to the elements of nature which surrounded us. We stayed. We did a very brief Erev Rosh HaShannah service, punctuated by howling winds and thunderous lightening. That evening, we felt God’s power and stood in total awe of God’s might in a way none of us will ever forget.
Watching the reports of Hurricaine Sandy and hearing the first hand accounts of family and friends on the East Coast took me back to that night in the Park when we stood in fear and trembled before God, praying for safety for ourselves and our loved ones, and for an end to the terrible storm. For us, the fear subsided as the storm did, a few hours later. We held our morning services in a field flooded with warm, welcoming sunshine.
But for so many on the East Coast, the morning brought not relief, but even more horror, more fear, and more trembling. In the light of day, millions stood in silent, tearful witness to the awesome power of nature, and to the absolutely indescribable power of the God who created nature.
A friend described the sense of helplessness in the face of the storm.
He said: I can’t begin to describe the fear and horror. I stood there and watched a wall of water coming at us. It came so quickly. It came up the street, right at our house, and then up the driveway. It covered our yard, and crashed against the house. Our basement flooded. The house would have flooded too, if it wasn’t five steps up from the ground. The water made it up the first four steps. Thankfully it stopped there. I stood there watching it all. I saw cars floating down the street in front of me. Cars floating. Can you believe it? You can’t begin to imagine it. We have no power. No cell phones. No internet. I have no way to find or reach my congregants. I don’t know if they’re OK. It wasn’t supposed to hit here. We weren’t supposed to flood.
On Succot, as we ate in our Succah, looking up at the stars through the leafy roof, we were reminded of our temporal nature and God’s eternality. We were reminded that no matter how powerful we sometimes feel in our day to day lives we really aren’t as powerful as we think. We can’t control nature. We sit in our Succah and can’t control the rain, or the temperature, or the clouds or the sun, or even the bees or flies.
Nature is beyond our control, but our tradition teaches us that we do have a different kind of control. We call it Gemilut Chasidim – Acts of Loving Kindness. We have the ability to make it better, to reach out to people who are hurting and help them with our prayers, our support, and our deeds.
Our rabbis taught that reward and punishment in Olam HaBa, the world to come look pretty much the same…long banquet tables filled with all kinds of delicious aromatic delicacies. We are seated at a banquet table with God. But the problem is that we all have boards strapped on our arms. We cannot bend our elbows to feed ourselves. In the place of punishment, souls sit and salivate eternally. In the place of reward, souls turn to each other, care for each other, and feed and nourish each other.
It is time to turn to those in pain, those who are traumatized, those who have lost so much. It is our turn to reach out and offer everything we can – to be there for those who are hurting and suffering. Our Reform Movement has activated a special fund, a Hurricane relief fund. Through this fund, Reform Jews nationwide will join together and reach out to Jews and non-Jews alike, offering a supporting, helpful hand. We will help individuals in need, and work to rebuild devastated congregations and communities. Our sacred task is to help victims rebuild both physically and spiritually. It is a huge task, seemingly impossible. But our tradition teaches us: You do not have to complete the task. But you do have to start it, and give it your best effort.
Rabbi David Ellenson wrote : Our history teaches us that there is an ineffable spark to the human spirit that allows us to respond to catastrophe with hope and a belief in the future. May these sparks of optimism and that good that taking place even in the face of this horrific disaster light up these difficult days and give us all the strength to move forward as together we rebuild and repair our world.