By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I want to take this opportunity to share with you a very eye-opening experience that my wife and I felt fortunate to have partaken of this week.
We were on the East Coast for the wedding of one of my students, a girl from Dallas, and were able to spend some time walking along the oceanfront and especially in the upper-scale gated community of Sea Gate. This enabled us to observe and feel the decimation and destruction of Hurricane Sandy first-hand. Being from distant Texas, Miri and I felt removed from what happened, and Jewishly we are supposed to identify with and feel the pain of others.
We saw, first-hand, a Jewish community where many homes no longer exist. This formerly wealthy neighborhood was graced by a tent from where soup and chicken were being portioned out to those in line, and piles of clothing were being distributed to those without.
We watched a bearded Jew, after much effort, get into the open window of what was left of his house to try to salvage something out of the wreckage. We could see right in as the entire facade had washed into the ocean, the contents of the house looking like they went through a cycle in the washing machine and were plastered along the walls and ceiling of this former lakeside mansion.
We had to climb over the piles of cement slabs that were once a street. We spoke to shop owners that had nothing left in their stores; some were wearing masks to protect themselves from hazardous materials in the walls they were ripping out. We passed many blocks-long lines of cars waiting in line for gas; saw the long lines of FEMA and disaster handout centers, the recipients collecting blankets, clothing and food. It’s hard to describe the feelings and what we observed; the sadness, sense of loss and destitution.
We also saw a silver lining in the cloud of desperation: the plethora of chesed (kindness) being performed by the Jewish community — not only for the Jewish community, but also for all the victims. Nestled among a huge crowd of African Americans in line to receive their basic needs was a Refuah Jewish Medical Center mobile unit.
We stayed at the home of a friend in Baltimore who headed up the collection effort for food, clothing and money to send to New York. After one night of her emails and setting up bins, they needed trucks to haul all that had been collected. Everywhere we went, we saw teams of Jewish volunteers who were there to do anything and everything to make the lives of the victims a bit more bearable.
I’ve spent much time thinking what we are to learn from all of this. We of course, without prophecy, will never know the “why” of God’s bringing this about. But He certainly has gotten our attention, and there is a deeper message than this simply being a random effect of global warming.
We, as Jews, need to always look at situations like these as wake-up calls to inspire us to improve our actions and deeds in some way, whether in ways of chesed/kindness to others or in other areas of observance. God wants something from us, and although we may not know precisely what that is, this opportunity should not be passed by without some improvement. We undoubtedly should do our part in contributing toward the immediate need, but something more long-lasting is also in order. Adding to one’s Torah study is a catch-all that covers all areas of growth and improvement.
One thought that keeps entering my mind, by seeing so much that was built up by men over decades reduced to rubble in minutes, is observing the mighty power of God. When we hear thunder, we recite the blessing “Blessed are You God, king of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.”
One of my mentors from Jerusalem related that as a young boy he was in the bunker under his Tel Aviv home during the War of Independence. After a bomb powerfully shook their bunker, an elderly sage turned to him as said, in Yiddish, “Nu, my son, what blessing do you make over a bomb?” The sage answered (allegorically, but with much emotion), … “Whose power and might fill the world.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.