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.