How did you all feel waking up on Friday morning? I know, you were promised devastation from the Hurricane, they all warned you – there will be massive casualties. And…nothing happened, maybe a branch or two that fell, but for many, the effects of preparing for the storm, sore muscles from putting up shutters and a big bill from Home Depot and Publix, were the only effects.
There are people who suffered – 300 dead in Haiti (and the number is climbing), many thousands left homeless. And we don’t know what will happen in the rest of the U.S. Why them, and not us?
In the Unetaneh Tokef, we confront this idea head on: How many will pass on, and how many will be born; who will live and who will die; who will perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague…
Disasters are nothing new for us humans, and neither are our reactions to them. As human beings, our first reaction to a great tragedy is almost always ‘why’. Why did this happen to us, or to me?
On many occasions, the why response is helpful, especially if the disaster is by human hands. The ‘why’ answer helps us get to a reaction to how to respond, and I can give you many examples as to how a ‘why’ response has helped bring about real change, but sometimes, ‘why’ answers just don’t cut it.
Sometimes our rabbis give us a different way of responding – ‘what’ or ‘how’ – let me explain.
The first rabbinic text that came to my mind after this tragedy, a tragedy where whole neighborhoods, houses and schools, were destroyed, has to do with a collapsed building.
The situation is as follows – you are walking around on Shabbat, and you see a collapsed building, and chances are, there are people underneath the rubble. So what should you do? I mean, it’s Shabbat, so should you break Shabbat if there is a life in balance? So what is the answer? Mishnah Yoma tells us that we must clear the pile for the person, whether they are Jewish or not Jewish. If the person is found, and they are deceased, then you stop digging, but if they are alive, even if only a short while, than you must break Shabbat and even the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, to save that person.
This is where we get the famous idea – pikuach nefesh docheh et ha Shabbat – saving a life supersedes the laws of Shabbat. Do you know what I never saw in this discussion? The why – why did the building collapse, why were there people inside, why should I help, why isn’t anyone else there to help? The Rabbis do not provide us with those questions, they just give us an answer to an unasked question – what should you do in that circumstance – save lives.
I have been asked on many occasions after a tragedy that inevitable question, ‘why’ – and yes, I have an my own theological answer to why bad things happen to good people, but I always give the same answer, “I have a sound theological answer, but now is not the times for why, now is the time to answer with action and comfort you. How can we comfort you? What can we do?”
So here are three things we can do:
1. Pray as a community
We come to the Torah and bench gomel “HaGomel Lachayavim tovot she’gemalani kol tov” “who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness”
The congregation responds, “Mi Sh’gemalach kol tov hu yigmalecha kol tov selah” “May the One who rewarded you with all goodness reward you with all goodness for ever.”
Let me ask you something – who in here feels uncomfortable with this line: “who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and who has rewarded me with goodness.” There’s a reason for it.
Ellen Frankel, a Feminist Jewish scholar, writes in My People’s Prayer Book, that we know that trauma can leave the person affected isolated. “When one survives a catastrophe, especially if a loved one does not, can produce guilt rather than gratitude. After birth, a woman can experience depression, after surgery, we are left with scars. But Birkhat HaGomel publically acknowledging our vulnerability, we summon support from all those who are about our welfare. It is the community’s way of ensuring that we remain our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
By being there for that person, we are answering their question – Why me? Why was I saved? The answer – because you, like 99.9999% of all humans, deserve to live!
But what happens when you those who were not saved aren’t part of your ‘community’? That is when we perform the second action. Give.
2. Give – The Magen Avraham, Rabbi Abraham Abele Gombiner, a famous Jewish scholar, knew something about tragedy. He lost both of his parents at 13 to a massacre by Cossacks in the Ukraine. Later in life, he gave us all a way to deal with tragedy, and narrowly surviving death: if you are the beneficiary of God's kindness, you must do the same for others in need. So after you ‘bench gomel’, you should also donate money to communal causes. In our case, giving to help those in Haiti is a way to make up for the unworthiness you might feel today. It is a true act of tzedakah – restoring righteousness in the world.
And there’s a third thing you can do – make a personal blessing.
3. Say a personal prayer: The Shechayinu can only be said if the event has the possibility of repeating, which is why we must say it, because the acts of saving others must be repeated and we must always be ready to take on this holy task. We must always look for opportunities to save lives and help people. This is our job as Jews – we love life and perpetuate it as often as we possibly can.
Our world stands on three things – Torah, Avodah/prayer, and Gemilut Hasadim, acts of loving kindness. This is something I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah – picking up a Sefer Torah, saving a person’s life.
The midrash tells us that the Torah began with loving kindness, when God clothed Adam and Eve, and ends with loving kindness, when God buries Moshe– so this is how we must live our lives.
In this week’s parashah, we read about the death of Moses, “"And he [Moses said to them, I am one hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in." (Deuteronomy 31:2). I read an interesting article this week after the death of a 122 year old – that the bar is now set – no one will live past 115. There is a whole science to extending life, but even under the perfect circumstances, are days are numbered.
Knowing that we are only given so much time to accomplish what we need to accomplish in this world focuses the mind, forces us to do what we need to do. And Rabbi Tarfon famously said, "You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to avoid it altogether" (Avot 2:16).
Our response to disaster is all too often – why, but maybe we should be answering with ‘how’ – ‘how’ can I help alleviate your pain, ‘how’ can we bring wholeness to your broken life, ‘how’ can we serve you? Or ‘what’ – ‘what’ can I do? Can I pray for you, can I send you something, what can I do? We are not obligated to complete the work, but we are still bound to do it.
This is how we as Jews react – the answer to a why question may or may not bring you peace, but if you can live out your ‘how’ question, I can guarantee that you can bring comfort and a bit of life to someone who is suffering.