By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The past week was a most difficult one for many of our readers and their neighbors. A storm thrust millions into the pre-electric era, leaving entire cities and neighborhoods in the dark, without basic necessities.
There was no heat and no light. Many people didn’t have water. There was no gas for cars and no fuel for the lucky few who have generators. Life was turned on its head. Worst fears were realized as we were thrown back to the pre-Thomas Edison age. Emotions and nerves were frazzled and tossed about like an old tree in a hurricane.
Homes were flooded, leaving their owners with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Bridges swayed and tunnels were impassible; filled with water. Traffic slowed to a crawl and you just couldn’t get there from here. Yeshivos were shut, schools closed and proud people, young and old, became refugees seeking shelter.
Surveying the damage, many felt like Noach peering out of the teivah after the water of the Mabul receded.
New York City and areas of New Jersey resembled third-world countries and there was nothing to do about it. The politicians held press conferences, sounding platitudes, pontificating, and enacting new emergency measures. Utility company executives and spokesmen, clearly unprepared, were seriously challenged in their task of managing the recovery. Meanwhile, the temperatures dipped and people felt like they were losing their minds. There was no one to call, no one who can help, no one to relieve people of their misery and get their power back. Being one day without power is a major inconvenience. Two days is undue hardship. After three days, it becomes absolutely unbearable.
We all know people who lost everything. When the storm finally blew out, they were left with nothing, reduced to begging for a place to stay for Shabbos. All they sought was a roof over their heads, a warm meal, a hot shower and some clean clothes. The image kept on repeating itself. Lines of people in search of normalcy stretched as far as the eye could see.
In the greatest, mightiest, proudest, most advanced country in the history of the world, its most highly developed, most advanced, wealthiest areas were reduced to darkness and despair. There was nothing anyone could do but wring their hands in desperation as they waited and prayed for help and salvation.
It was like a war zone, yet the war was not man-made. Or was it?
The posuk in Koheles (3:14) states, “Yodati ki kol asher ya’aseh haElokim hu yihiyeh le’olam, olov ein lehosif, umimenu ein ligroah, vehaElokim osoh sheyiru milefonov – Everything that Hashem made will be forever; we cannot add to it, nor can we subtract from it; and He made it so that people will fear Him.”
Rashi explains: “Yodati… I know that all that Hashem made at the time of creation will stand forever and will not be changed unless Hashem commands it to be changed so that people will learn to fear him, such as when the oceans broke forth out of their boundaries in the time of Enosh and flooded one third of the world.
“VehaElokim osoh… Hashem made that they should fear him. For seven days the path of the sun was changed to rise in the west and set in the east during the Mabul, so that people would fear Hashem. In the times of Chizkiyahu and his father, Ochoz, as well, there were changes to maaseh bereishis, as the day was shortened and the night lengthened. All this was done so that people would fear Hashem.
“Therefore,” concludes Rashi, “the best advice for man is to do good and fear Hashem.”
It is not a cliché to say that when such wondrous changes happen to natural daily occurrences and destruction is brought upon mankind, it is for a reason. One need not be a prophet to conclude that the purpose of the oceans surging over their banks and flooding entire towns is so that we should fear Hashem and ensure that we are properly following his commandments.
The yahrtzeit of Maran Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach zt”l fell during last week, and so we will turn to his timeless teaching to guide us through this trying chapter.
During the period leading up to the Gulf War, many people were fearful of what would happen to Eretz Yisroel. Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, was threatening that if America attacked his country, he would retaliate by bombing Israel with rockets loaded with explosives, as well as disease-causing agents, killing by sickness those who wouldn’t die from the bombing.
People sought to leave the country for safer pastures. Students from overseas were being pressured by their families to return home. Many turned to Rav Shach for his counsel. He advised them to remain in Eretz Yisroel and not to flee. He said that while the fate of Israel’s residents wasn’t clear, if war were to break out, it was equally unclear what the situation would be in foreign countries. He ruled, with the clarity borne of decades of toil in Torah, that since at that time Eretz Yisroel was not a greater makom sakonah than anywhere else, it was folly to try to figure out which place was safer than the other.
Just think back to the summer period when the frenzy over Iran was at its peak and many feared that war was about to break out. People cancelled trips to Eretz Yisroel and stayed home, feeling safer in New York than in Yerushalayim. Without second-guessing their decision, the experiences of Hurricane Sandy show that New York is essentially one storm away from catastrophe. The country that fashions itself as the greatest in history is one disaster away from utter calamity. Yet, we feel safe here, because we are confident in the state to protect us. We should know better, but we don’t.
We don’t learn our lesson. We have had so many reminders in past years, yet we remain imperceptive to the simple fact that “im Hashem lo yishmor ihr shov shokad shomer.”
Too many people in high-risk areas, residing on the shore, ignored the calls to evacuate, disregarding the constant warnings and scoffing at the ominous forecast.
Aren’t we like that too? Are we, chas veshalom, guilty of turning our backs on a Divine message?
While in the old country we were tormented by pogroms and vile anti-Semites, Hashem has, by and large, spared us from them. Now, we reside in relative comfort and freedom in a malchus shel chessed. We tend to take it all for granted and, at times, barely realize that the Mechadeish bechol yom tuvo maaseh bereishes is the One Who keeps us safe and makes us prosperous. We receive wake-up calls and reminders. Some are brought to us by terrorists, others by voters, some by land and some by sea. The most recent one was known as Sandy. Hurricanes and 9/11 have replaced Chmielnicki and Stalin. Judge Linda Reade has replaced Father Charles Coughlin to remind us that we are in golus and are always dependent upon rachamei Shomayim, bechol dor vador.
Rav Shlomo Kook, the rov of Rechovot, his wife and two of their children were killed in an awful automobile crash. Rav Shach went to be menachem the grief-stricken aveilim. He told them that it is not tzidkus to accept Hashem’s harsh judgment, but, rather, it is simply the smart thing to do so. It is beyond our abilities to understand what Hashem does and figure out the reasons why. But, many times, in hindsight, we look back and see that things that people thought were terribly tragic and incomprehensible when they occurred, turned out to be greatly advantageous for all.
He gave an example of just such an occurrence. When the Second World War broke out, the Soviet authorities announced that they would permit anyone who feared the war to leave Russia, providing exit visas to those who submitted an official request. A debate broke out among the Jews who lived in the border regions of Russia and the eastern European countries. To some, this was a golden opportunity to escape the notorious Soviet repression and anti-Semitism. Others saw it as a communist ruse, designed to trick people into betraying themselves as enemies of the state. They reasoned that all who apply to leave will be branded as traitors and harshly punished.
Some filled out the forms and applied to leave. Others, fearing the worst, decided that they wouldn’t fall into the trap. And a trap it was. The people who asked to leave were singled out and banished to far-off tundra-frozen Siberia.
At the time, it seemed that it was a terrible miscalculation to have asked to leave. Those who were sent to Siberia and their families bemoaned their tragic fate and agonized about how they’d been ensnared. Those who had elected to stay congratulated themselves on their foresight.
However, after a while, it turned out that those who had been exiled to Siberia were the lucky ones. By being out there, far from the ravages of war, and under constant Russian domination, they survived the awful Holocaust. The people who had thought that they had made the correct decision, staying behind in the Soviet border zone, were overrun by the Nazis when those areas fell. Many of them died tragic deaths.
Rav Shach told the Kook family that we do not have the ability to know what is good for us and what isn’t. Therefore, the smart thing to do is to recognize that and not doubt Hashem’s actions.
If a kiddush Hashem emerges from the tragedy, if somehow chizuk is brought about and if years hence we are able to look back and see that the tragedy led to positive developments, then, said Rav Shach, we will perhaps be able to catch a glimpse of Hashem’s cheshbonos.
As it happened, a yeshiva was established in memory of the Kook family, and that yeshiva thrives until today, pumping out Torah and kedushah, being mekadeish sheim Shomayim in Rechovot.
While our president was posing for pictures together with New Jersey’s self-obsessed governor, fictitiously portraying themselves as concerned and dedicated to people in distress, and while New York City’s mayor was arguing that the New York City Marathon must go on, diverting vital services that could have helped hungry, cold, sick and homeless Sandy refugees, Yidden were being moser nefesh to help each other.
While the Staten Island borough president was complaining that the world famous Red Cross was “nowhere to be found,” grassroots groups of tzaddikim were teaching the world what kol Yisroel areivim zeh lozeh mean. The volunteers of Achiezer in Far Rockaway were setting examples of the definition of chessed, providing food, clothing and shelter for people who lost everything in their neighborhood. Chaveirim all over the stricken areas dropped everything to run and help people in distress.
There were school busses crisscrossing Williamsburg filled with boxes of hot food, chicken, kugel and steaming containers of soup. Satmar yungeleit traveled to Far Rockaway with chafing dishes, set up shop in schools and shuls and served hot meals. People from Flatbush and Monsey traveled to Far Rockaway to help clean homes and make them inhabitable again. Volunteers converged on Seagate to help its residents cope.
Meals for every day and Shabbos for those who were stranded in Far Rockaway and the Five Towns were distributed gratis at Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv, The White Shul, Young Israel of Woodmere, Chabad and other locations. Lakewood families without power were treated to free warm meals at Lake Terrace Hall on Sunday, along with entertainment for the children, working bathrooms, a place to charge cell phones, and a chance to get out of their dark, cold houses. The large ballroom usually utilized for weddings was packed wall to wall with literally thousands of people who were grateful for the warm, tasty food provided, all thanks to a group of volunteers seeking neither honor nor recognition. Bais Medrash Govoah and its devoted chef packaged suppers for families of yungeleit who were stuck without power.
A rosh yeshiva rented a U-Haul truck and drove for hours to Albany, NY, to purchase generators with which to light and heat botei medrash, keeping the kol Torah pumping unabated, making sure the world is not shomeim.
People wrote checks to help yeshivos flooded out of their buildings temporarily reestablish themselves. Shuls opened their doors to bochurim and kollelim who became homeless overnight.
While 911 was unresponsive, Hatzolah dispatchers were at work 24 hours a day, directing local heroes to addresses where their help was needed. Shomrim ran to Sea Gate to protect the homes and properties of people they don’t know, which were being vandalized at will, while the police were too busy to maintain order there or anywhere. They pumped out water from ravaged basements, and pumped in life and hope to Jew and gentile.
As baalei kriah read about Avrohom Avinu’s longing for guests, every Yid was either a host or a guest. In every neighborhood, resources were provided to connect the haves with the have-nots, ensuring that every Yiddishe home with power accommodated as many people as possible, plus a few more. Like Yerushalayim of old, lo omar odom tzar li hamakom. Our fellow Jews followed the example of hachnosas orchim set by Avrohom Avinu in last week’s parsha and passed down to us through the ages.
Even if we couldn’t see our own surroundings, even if our homes and phone screens were dark, and even if we sat wrapped in a blanket hovering over a Gemara with a candle on one side of the page and a flashlight on the other, one thing we saw clearly was the brilliance of a Yiddishe neshomah. Too often, we hear complaints about our own community. It shouldn’t take a hurricane to prove these claims wrong, but it is comforting that it did. Let us remember that we are the am hanivchar and that we are blessed with inner greatness. All of us are.
Neither tidal wave nor looters can ever dim the glory of a Yiddishe neshomah, the light within each of us.
Let us do what we can to help revitalize the greatness that lies in the souls of those who are experiencing rough patches in their lives. Let us do what we can to ensure that every person, young and old, is given an opportunity to shine and to be great. Let us not just shake our heads, but actually work towards that goal. If we would, we could affect change, have a serious impact, and change the world.
Let us be grateful to Hashem for allowing us to reside in a country as great as this one. Let us thank Him for all the modern conveniences we took for granted until last week. Let us use them to help us live fuller, more complete, better lives, as Hashem intended for us to do. Let us recognize that it is not kochi ve’otzem yodi that results in hachayil hazeh. Let us get the message, once and for all, so that we don’t have to be sent more of them. Let us set out to be better Jews and better people, holding on to the lessons and inspiration of these weeks of turmoil and challenge as we head into winter.