by Yehuda L. Oppenheimer
Much has been, and will continue to be written, about the calamity that was Hurricane Sandy. Thousands rendered homeless, millions without power; an incalculable loss of money, possessions, any sense of security. . . the full extent of the suffering is really beyond comprehension. Economists claim: “There has not been such devastation affecting so many participants in the US economy before.” That is to say, even when compared to the trauma of 9/11/2001. Although there was far more loss of life at that awful time, the calamity did not directly injure as many people as Sandy has. For the American Orthodox Jewish community in particular, I am not aware of any incident that directly affected so many with serious hardship as this hurricane. In fact, as time goes on, it seems that the impact is growing, as the scope grows larger and larger.
How do we think about such a tragedy from a theological perspective? What message is Hashem sending us with such a large megaphone? Although I claim no special insight into His inscrutable ways, it would seem that Chapters 40 and 41 of Yeshayahu are particularly germane. Chapter 40 begins with the famous words:
נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
“Comfort ye, comfort ye My people,” says your God
With these words we begin the seven weeks of consolation that lead from the depths of Tisha B’Av to the heights of Rosh Hashana. In the ensuing verses the prophet describes the Almighty as being far beyond the plans of mortal man, as He arranges for the time that Jerusalem and Zion will be restored to their proper place of world prominence, inhabited once again by His beloved people. Gently, with great love, the great shepherd will come and gather up his lambs from the clutches of their enemies. For after all, He is so much greater than any of his creatures, who are like a drop from a bucket; mere dust before Him. All will know that:
כָּל הַגּוֹיִם כְּאַיִן נֶגְדּוֹ מֵאֶפֶס וָתֹהוּ נֶחְשְׁבוּ לוֹ
All the nations are as naught before Him; as things of no value are they regarded by Him.
The prophet surveys all human activity, all the artisans, the princes, all those who think they have their own power, and
גַם נָשַׁף בָּהֶם וַיִּבָשׁוּ וּסְעָרָה כַּקַּשׁ תִּשָּׂאֵם
He blew on them, and they dried up, and a storm shall carry them away like straw. If we would only
שְׂאוּ מָרוֹם עֵינֵיכֶם וּרְאוּ מִי בָרָא אֵלֶּה
Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these
we would know that
וְקוֵֹיי הֹ’ יַחֲלִיפוּ כֹחַ יַעֲלוּ אֵבֶר כַּנְּשָׁרִים יָרוּצוּ וְלֹא יִיגָעוּ יֵלְכוּ וְלֹא יִיעָפוּ
But those who put their hope in the Lord shall renew [their] vigor, they shall raise wings as eagles; they shall run and not weary, they shall walk and not tire
and thus have the power to face all that life can throw at us, confident that He will grant us strength and the capacity to deal with all adversity. Actually, this was Hashem’s plan from time immemorial:
מִי פָעַל וְעָשָׂה קֹרֵא הַדֹּרוֹת מֵרֹאשׁ אֲנִי ה’ רִאשׁוֹן וְאֶת אַחֲרֹנִים אֲנִי הוּא
Who calls the generations from the beginning; I, the Lord, am first, and with the last ones I am He.
The islands (Bahamas? Cuba?) first will see& fear, then the areas that are on the end of land (seacoast? Jersey shore?) will be terrified
רָאוּ אִיִּים וְיִירָאוּ קְצוֹת הָאָרֶץ יֶחֱרָדוּ קָרְבוּ וַיֶּאֱתָיוּן
The islands shall see & fear; the ends of the earth shall tremble; they have approached and come
Some will think themselves mightier than the storm; they are not mightier than G-d’s word; they feel that their works can hold Him back:
וַיְחַזֵּק חָרָשׁ אֶת צֹרֵף מַחֲלִיק פַּטִּישׁ אֶת הוֹלֶם פָּעַם אֹמֵר לַדֶּבֶק טוֹב הוּא וַיְחַזְּקֵהוּ בְמַסְמְרִים לֹא יִמּוֹט
And the craftsman strengthened the smith, the one who smooths with the hammer [strengthened] the one who wields the sledge hammer; he says of the cement, “It is good,” and he strengthened it with nails that it should not move.
They build, they fortify, build with nails and cement, they think themselves impervious to G-d’s power; that the work of their craftsmen will be able to withstand whatever the Almighty has in store. After first reassuring His people that they will survive all that will transpire:
אַל תִּירָא כִּי עִמְּךָ אָנִי אַל תִּשְׁתָּע כִּי אֲנִי אֱלֹהֶיךָ אִמַּצְתִּיךָ אַף עֲזַרְתִּיךָ אַף תְּמַכְתִּיךָ בִּימִין צִדְקִי
Do not fear for I am with you; be not discouraged for I am your God: I encouraged you, I also helped you, I also supported you with My righteous hand.
He tells those that oppose Him that
תִּזְרֵם וְרוּחַ תִּשָּׂאֵם וּסְעָרָה תָּפִיץ אֹתָם וְאַתָּה תָּגִיל בַּהֹ בִּקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּתְהַלָּל
You shall winnow them, and a wind shall carry them off, and a great storm shall scatter them, and you shall rejoice with the Lord, with the Holy One of Israel shall you praise yourself.
And though that great wind will cause tremendous destruction, which will lead to widespread hardship and the demolition of His enemies, Israel is called upon not to have fear:
וְאַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב אֲשֶׁר בְּחַרְתִּיךָ זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי
But you, Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham, who loved Me,
Those that oppose Hashem will be gone:
הֵן יֵבֹשׁוּ וְיִכָּלְמוּ כֹּל הַנֶּחֱרִים בָּךְ יִהְיוּ כְאַיִן וְיֹאבְדוּ אַנְשֵׁי רִיבֶךָ
Behold all those incensed against you shall be ashamed and confounded; those who quarreled with you shall disappear and be lost.
As the chapter ends:
הֵן כֻּלָּם אָוֶן אֶפֶס מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם רוּחַ וָתֹהוּ נִסְכֵּיהֶם
Behold them all, their deeds are naught, of no substance;
wind and nothingness are their molten images.
Thus, in brief, the prophet warns later generations that a time will come before the end of days when, primarily through the power of wind, He will show once and for all, that man’s arrogance, as expressed through the objects and structures he builds, strengthened or not with cement and nails, are no match for the Almighty when he allows his wind to blow and cause havoc and destruction. Using just wind, a barely tangible medium, He can easily wipe away the strongest structures of Man. Virtually all that Man creates is after all, according to the wisest of all men, mere הבל הבלים, vapor and emptiness. (In modern Hebrew הבל is the vapor that is created by a breath on a cold day, for a moment looking like it exists and gone in an instant).
Again, one hesitates before suggesting what lessons we are being taught.
Some are suggesting that in keeping with Parshat Lech Lecha, rather than rebuilding ruined homes here, it is time to take the insurance money and head, finally, to Eretz Yisrael. While I agree with the sentiment, and feel that in general all of us need to ask ourselves constantly whether we are justified in not taking advantage of the blessed opportunity our generation has been given to move to our true home, I recognize that this might not be the answer for everyone at this time.
And so, we rebuild here in the USA. But as we rebuild, perhaps we ought to reflect. Do we really need to build the types of mansions that so many Orthodox Jews have built themselves? With the “tuition crisis” and the struggles facing so many worthy institutions, with the many people struggling to keep up with the demands being made for shuidduch “neccesities” and the economic crisis in Eretz Yisrael, is it not time to perhaps rethink some of our priorities? Are we really going to rebuild as if we are staying in the Five Towns and Seagate and Belle Harbor for the next hundreds of years? Is it not obscene that, as I heard just the other day, an Orthodox synagogue in the NY area is completing a new building that will cost close to 50 million dollars? Has “Next Year in Jerusalem” been reduced to nothing more than an advertising campaign for tour operators who bring crowds for the holidays who have absolutely no interest in staying? What does Eretz Yisrael really mean to us?
In conclusion, I would like to quote from the famous book Em Habanim Semeicha by by Rav Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal, in which he pleaded with Jews to leave Europe behind for Eretz Yisrael before the Holocaust that ultimately claimed his own life. In describing his frustration at the obstinacy of his generation in seeing the wonderful opportunity they had been given to return to Eretz Yisrael, he writes:
Realize this, o fellow Jew! From now on do not seek rest anywhere except by your true mother, Eretz Yisrael. Only our true mother will console us after all of the severe hardships that have befallen us, and after all of the pain that the stepmother has inflicted upon us….
How much money did our ancestors invest in these lands? They built palaces, castles, and great halls, because each one of them thought, this is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it (Tehillim 132:14). They disregarded their true mother, Eretz Yisrael. The Shelah and the Chatam Sofer bemoan the fact that some Jews become completely absorbed in Chutz LaAretz. They build themselves houses and palaces and invest all of their silver and gold in “Chutz LaAretz” property, in order to enhance and expand the stepmother’s boundaries. But, they neglect to establish the boundaries of the widow, our righteous mother who cries and laments over us. They do not even consider doing anything for her benefit. They only care and desire to make an honorable living and build a big house with a courtyard made of hewn stones. [They build it] to last for many years, so that they can bequeath it to their children and grandchildren who will be born on foreign soil, [for] they hope to see many offspring and live long lives in exile.
In this way, we lost hundreds and thousands of years in exile and gave all of our strength and wealth to our stepmother. And now, we “merited” to receive her expression of gratitude for all of the effort that we expended on her behalf. She took a staff and hit us cruelly and mercilessly. She wounded our entire body; from the sole of the foot to the head, there is nothing whole.
These are the deeds of our stepmother. Now, should we put our faith in her for the future and return to her once again? How can we be so sure that after a few decades she will not do this to us again? Indeed, we see that the Gentiles have treated us this way during every period of our history. But, we have yet to learn that we must no longer put our trust in the lands of exile. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, No! No! We will no longer return to our stepmother. Instead, we will arise and go up to our true mother and devote aIl of our strengths to her, from now and forever, to build up her walls and repair her ruins. Be strong and let us be strong for the sake of our people and for the sake of the cities of our God, and the good Lord will make a good sign for us.
Let us ferverently hope and pray that all the suffering should end, that everyone is restored to their homes in safety and blessing, and that the losses, financial or otherwise, be restored and then some. But let us not forget this wake up call, and think again about the alternative opportunity that is awaiting all of us in Eretz Yisrael, and let us say in honesty, “speedily in our days”
Rabbi Yehuda L Oppenheimer is mara d’asra of Young Israel of Forest Hills, NY