Latest update: April 22nd, 2013
The continuation of my column on the power of prayer was ready to go – but then tragedy hit. Tragedy of a magnitude none of us could have envisioned.
New York City, the capital of the world, is shaken to its core as buildings tumble, electrical power is lost, highways and neighborhoods are flooded, bridges and tunnels are closed down, cars float away, people lose their homes and even their lives.
What are we to do? How are we to understand this?
As readers know, whenever suffering befalls us I search our holy books to find illumination and guidance. I turn to my most loyal friend – a friend that has always been at my side and given me comfort and strength and never betrayed me – my sefer Tehillim, my Book of Psalms.
The psalms were written by King David, who experienced every type of pain and suffering that can befall mankind, and so each word is drenched with his tears and speaks for all eternity and for all mankind.
The devastation of Hurricane Sandy began on Monday, October 29, the 13th day of the month of Cheshvan. The psalm designated for the 13th day of the month is Psalm 69. I opened to it and the words jumped out: “Save us, oh G-d, for the waters have reached onto my soul.”
There is more. This psalm does not leave us in the cold – it also provides our remedy, our answer: “But as for me, my prayer is to You, Hashem.”
Yes, we must turn in heartfelt prayer to our Heavenly Father and beseech His Mercy, His Salvation.
I looked at the weekly parshah and read how our father Abraham, whose hospitality had no bounds, opened his home to strangers. That which our forefathers experienced and shaped their lives has become part of our DNA.
I think of all those who lost power or were left homeless. I know of a woman who stood in her home, waist deep in water, desperately searching for photographs of her father and mother who are no longer here. Who can comprehend the pain?
And I think of all the wonderful people who opened their homes just like our father Abraham. I am one of those people who had to evacuate and I too have benefited and continue to benefit from that hospitality.
The Rambam taught that when suffering is visited upon us we are commanded to cry out and awaken our people with the sound of the shofar. Everyone must be alerted. Everyone must engage in self-examination and ask, What is my life all about? How would I rate if I were given a “neshamah checkup”? What does my Judaism, my Torah, really mean to me?”
The Rambam wrote that if we regard the tragedies that befall us as simply the way of the world, natural happenings, we are guilty of achzarius (cruelty). At first glance it is difficult to understand why Maimonides would choose the term “cruelty” to describe those who see trials and tribulations as the way of the world. They may be unthinking, apathetic, foolish, obtuse or just cynical, but to accuse them of cruelty seems rather farfetched.
The answer is simple. If we regard our pain and suffering as “mere coincidence” and feel no motivation to examine our lives, abandon our old ways and change, then indeed such an attitude is cruel, for it invites additional misfortunate upon ourselves and others.
Great Torah luminaries of recent generations told us we were entering the final stages of history, a period called ikvsa di Mashiach – footsteps of the Messiah. So how can we remain silent? Would that not be the ultimate cruelty?
Ours is a generation that has been challenged again and again. We have had so many wakeup calls – some terrifying, some more subtle – but we have remained indifferent to them all.
I will not go back to the time of the Holocaust, though by every right I should – for if that didn’t shake us up, what will? Even the terrible events of 9/11 are no longer vivid in our minds and the fellowship and the kindness that ensued in its wake are all long gone.
So let us focus on more recent events.
During the summer of 2002 a terrible tragedy occurred in a bungalow colony in the Catskills. A mother had just bathed her infant baby and put her in her carriage for a nap. Suddenly out of nowhere a wild bear appeared, snatched the baby and made off with her. The baby was never seen again.
This shocking story was covered in newspapers and on radio and TV, but, strangely, I met relatively few people who were aware of it. Nor did I encounter many who were aware of the Talmudic teaching that the generation that witnesses a wild beast snatching a baby from its cradle should sound the shofar to awaken the nation. Needless to say, the shofar was not sounded and we were not awakened. And in the years since, our slumber has become ever deeper.
The number of catastrophes around the world has multiplied to such an extent that we have all but become desensitized to them. Tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, nuclear spills, uncontrollable fires, previously unknown diseases, savage acts of terror – all have become common. Could these constitute a long, ongoing wakeup call? Somehow it never even occurs to us to ask that question.
And then Sandy arrived in all her fury, mocking us – mocking our technology, our arrogance, our presumption of invincibility. We are silenced. We stand humbly. We tremble and cry.
How could this be? Things like this occur only in primitive places far from civilization. But it happened and we cannot escape it, and this time we cannot find an explanation because this time it was our house. This time it was our community.
This time was different. But will we be different? Or will we stubbornly pursue our old ways and remain deaf, dumb and blind? Will we continue with our sick obsessions, worshiping the god of Money and succumbing to the enticements of our degenerate society?
It’s all in our hands. Hashem is calling.
Do you remember the story of Elijah the prophet and Jezebel, the evil queen who seduced our people into worshiping pagan gods? Elijah rose like a lion and went to battle to save our people and bring them back to Hashem, Who responded and sent a great miracle for all to see and hear.
The people actually witnessed the Hand of the Almighty and proclaimed in unison “G-d, He is G-d!” Elijah rejoiced. But Jezebel merely said, “Wait until tomorrow.” Tragically, she was correct. Tomorrow came and all was forgotten.
The question we must now ask ourselves is this: Will we forget and go back to business as usual or will we remember Psalm 69? Have the waters risen onto our souls and will our prayers pour forth from those souls to reach to the Heavenly Court? Let us say, with King David, “But as for me, my prayer is to You, Hashem.”
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