Right now, we are in an extraordinarily dark time for our community, and we have no idea how the narrative will end. There is little we can search for that will reassure us that things will somehow be okay. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. In the aftermath of the Hurricane, our community institutions – shuls and yeshivos alike – have become hubs of tefillah and chesed. Though it is difficult to daven at a time like this, when confronting a wrathful God, there is no doubt that even if a House of God can’t provide answers, it can provide comfort, and that’s why people come. Perhaps this is why the Shunamite woman reached out to Elisha – as a man of God, his presence could be a comfort even if he could do nothing about her situation. Our challenge is to continue seeking, and continue to be a place where people who are seeking an encounter with the Divine – whether because they are angry at Him, want to thank Him, don’t understand Him or are seeking closeness – will be able to feel spiritually fulfilled.
Another lesson we can learn from the Shunamite woman is that of perspective. When Elisha asks what he could do for her, the Shunamite woman refused to focus on what was glaringly missing from her life. She instead was thankful for the simple life she led and the gift of community and support she received. Throughout the past weeks, many people expressed similar sentiments. In the midst of depressing and crippling power outages, many wrote or told me that they were enjoying the family togetherness this experience afforded. One person even focused on the character building aspect of the whole experience, writing how interesting it was to see his children redefine the “necessities” of life.
Of course, it is not our place to pass judgments for and on others and tell them that their suffering is noble and builds character. Chazal tell us that Iyov’s friends were especially faulted for making these kinds of calculations on behalf of their friend who was suffering epic tragedies. We can’t tell other people that “it’s just stuff,” because it’s not just stuff; it’s a lifetime of memories. Chazal also tell us that we are not supposed to offer words of comfort at the time that mes motel l’fanav, when a person is not yet buried and the loss of a loved one is still fresh. Baruch Hashem, we have not suffered that kind of loss, but the loss of a home, or even significant damage to one, no doubt engenders feelings of grief and heartache. But it is humbling and heartening to see others who have suffered loss, or even great inconvenience, say the same thing.
Perhaps there is another lesson, though, one that may, indeed, provide some comfort. When we leave a narrative incomplete, we realize that we still have a hand in writing the conclusion. Because as much as our community has suffered, we have also shown – and been shown – unprecedented levels of chessed, in the spirit of Avraham Avinu, whose hospitality and kindness were a by word and, for him, even superseded the value of a conversation with God. Our community has been inundated with e-mails from people who are blessed to have power, heat, electricity and internet service, offering the use of their homes to anyone who wants, and people with fridge and freezer space and a dry home offering that, as well as Shabbos hospitality for sleeping and meals. People from across the tri-state area have been coming to volunteer on the Lower East Side, the Rockaways and Long Beach, and even if the help is not on that scale, it’s amazing how much chessed can be done with a simple electrical outlet! Mi K’Amcha Yisrael! This kind of selfless unity is what a community should be like, and not only at times of tragedy. Events like this remind us how powerless we are in the face of God’s awesome Might, as expressed through natural disasters, and how pointless and insignificant our egos and so many of our personal issues may be in the face of this kind of destruction, when we need to respond affirmatively and positively. The only way to counter wrathful devastation is through constructive love- as Dovid Hamelech wrote ki amarti, olam chesed yibaneh, the world is built through acts of kindness and charity, and it must be rebuilt in the same way. There is still a lot more to be done as people begin sorting through the wreckage and debris. Our friends and family will need help financially, physically and emotionally, and that is when we will put our best face forward.