Hearing the Hurricane

With the storm they call Sandy three weeks gone (though not its repercussions, unfortunately), the rear-view mirror perspective allows us to reflect anew on a Jewish truth: that “natural” disasters are meant to make us think.

Some of the thoughts that have already been contemplated were projected outward, at larger society’s excesses and decadence, seeing the storm as a sign of Divine disapproval of things that the Divine, as taught us by our religious tradition, strongly condemns.

Others have regarded the hurricane as a stimulus for collective Jewish repentance, or, turning even more inward, for their own personal self-improvement, in whatever areas they feel need attention.

Others still have looked at the tempest through the shining lens of the positive things it begat, the outpouring of concern and aid for others that came in its wake. From that perspective, Sandy was an opportunity to recognize the import of our interconnectedness, of the need to feel the pain of others, and to care for their needs.

All of those ideas are properly considered; what isn’t, though, is claiming that one knows with certitude the “reason” for the destruction and death—or any destruction or death. Making such assertions is the exclusive province of a prophet, and the Talmud teaches us that what little is left of prophecy in our times has been inherited by children and fools.

I don’t wish to strengthen the suspicion of some that I fall into that latter category by offering any personal prophetic declaration about Sandy; I have none. But I would like to share an observation with which a recent Shabbos guest of ours—a refugee, along with his wife, from flooded Far Rockaway—graced our table.

That table regularly hosts not only my wife’s delicious food and observations, and libations of varied sorts and strengths, but also divrei Torah on the parsha and Torah perspectives on current events. We had been talking, after the cholent, about the then-recent elections and how so many religious Jews were fretting over the second term the nation granted the president. My guest, surprisingly (or perhaps not so much, as he had only come to Jewish observance only as a young adult), found the hand-wringing a bit much, as do I. I pointed out that one of the curses in the Tochacha, the horrific description of what exile will include for the Jewish People, is that we Jews “will be chased by the sound of a rustling leaf” (Vayikra 26:36)—i.e. we will be terrified by even insubstantial fears.

To be sure, exile has provided us ample substantial fears, as do current events. Whether the danger is Iran, European anti-Semitism, Hamas and Hezbollah, yimach shmom,or any of a number of other looming perils, we have good reason indeed to feel unease in the world today.

But fears of the “rustling leaf” variety also plague us, like those about the executive branch’s imagined hostility toward Israel or its “war on religion,” both of which are, at least in the opinion of some of us, phantasms. Are there efforts we need to make in Israel’s behalf, and to protect Americans’ religious rights? Certainly. Does the White House harbor an anti-Israel animus and plan on outlawing religious observance? Uh, no.

My Shabbos guest, whom I had just met for the first time less than an hour earlier, thought a moment and said, “Who knows? Maybe that was the message of the hurricane.”

“What was?” I asked.

He responded, in essence if not verbatim: “That we shouldn’t busy ourselves indulging fears, imagining enemies and exaggerating maybe legitimate but limited concerns into full-blown existential crises. That we shouldn’t forget that G-d runs the world.”

“A truly worthy thought,” I said, and I meant it.

Something like a hurricane, which we are powerless to divert from its destined path and can’t even predict more than a few days ahead of time, reminds us that the power we need to ponder isn’t a person or a country or a political party. It’s Hashem. He is in charge, and can dissipate all our fears, the reasonable and unreasonable alike, at any moment He chooses.

Certainly not much of a chiddush, or novel thought, that. But sometimes, still, we might need a reminder.

© 2012 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, unedited.

(Communications: rabbiavishafran42@gmail.com)

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