By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
As of November 4, 2012, the date that I’m writing this, CNN reported that the estimated damage from Hurricane Sandy will be upwards of $50 billion. Seven and one-half million families lost power. The highest wave reported was over 39 feet high. The highest wind gusts clocked in at Eatons Neck, New York, were 94 mph, and in Montclair, New Jersey, at 88 mph. The Battery, the southern tip of Manhattan, had a storm surge of over nine feet. Certain loss of life in America alone is so far eighty people, a number that is sadly sure to rise when we gain access to swamped regions. And while these are raw numbers, the misery of Hurricane Sandy can’t be measured by numbers alone, and certainly not expressed with words. Entire hospitals were evacuated, including NICUs and ICUs, whole neighborhoods were swept away or burnt down, family businesses were wiped out in a matter of hours, and the list of human suffering goes on and on.
The thinking Torah Jew asks, “Meh osah Hashem lonu – What has Hashem done to us?” What lessons do we need to learn from this natural disaster? The atheist will blame it on global warming. But, we know better. Hashem is sending us some stiff messages. Rav Steinman, Shlit”a, the venerable Gaon in Eretz Yisroel, was asked about the reason a powerful storm hit the Eastern coast of the United States, and he answered, interestingly enough, that it was because of shmiras Shabbos, keeping and guarding Shabbos. When pressed further, he pinpointed hotzaah, the prohibition of transferring from one domain to another and carrying on Shabbos. While I can only guess, I surmise that Rav Steinman was prompted to make this suggestion since Shabbos is our way of commemorating the perfection of G-d’s creation and how Hashem saw that everything was good. When people are neglectful of the strictures of Shabbos, Hashem rescinds the normal order of creation. Perhaps he zoomed in on hotzaah since fierce winds move things from place to place.
How aware are we about the prohibition of carrying on Shabbos? Do our children who grow up all their lives with an eruv have an awareness of the severe crime of carrying on Shabbos in a place where there is no evuv? The Friday after the storm, how many of us made sure, with all the toppled trees and downed power lines, that our eruv was up and operational?
I would like to humbly suggest another possible message. Hashem placed certain rules of nature in place to keep humanity safe. Thus, the posuk testifies, “Toleh eretz al blima – The world is suspended upon nothingness.” Thus, when looking in a telescope, we see the huge earth hanging in the air yet it does not hurtle randomly through the universe. The sun, perfectly positioned 93 million miles away, does not meander closer which would barbeque humanity nor does it frolic further away which would instantly created an Ice Age. We testify to this immutable law of nature when we say in Kiddush Levana, “Chok u’zman nosan lahem shelo yishanu es tafkidom – Positioning and timing was granted to them that they not vary from their route.” In a similar vein, Hashem assured us about the sands of the beach and the shoreline in general. “Gvul samta bal yavorun bal yeshuvun l’chasos haaretz – A boundary was given )at the shore) that should not be passed, lest the seas sweep and cover the earth.”
Why did Hashem lift these boundaries and allow Sandy to cover Seagate, Belle Harbor, Lower Manhattan, and countless other neighborhoods? I believe it’s because humanity is breaking the normal boundaries of mankind. In our city, same sex marriages have become the norm, something that the Medrash tells us happened at the time of the great flood when Hashem then also removed all boundaries. Closer to home, we have removed many sacred boundaries. People talk to rabbonim and roshei yeshiva in a manner that in previous generations people would have shuddered to even contemplate. Children are not inhibited from speaking with insolence toward their parents and spouses speak with utter lack of respect and deference to one another. The removal of the boundary of the sandy seawall should act as a wakeup call to see how we respect the time honored expected boundaries of human interaction.
There’s another thing that deserves much thought. I think it’s obvious that Hashem is not pleased with people’s obsession with technology. People keep their blackberry’s’ on their shtenders while davening. They are busy texting during the daf. They don’t linger by the family supper table but dart to computer and iTablets. So, Hashem pulled the plug on technology and, wouldn’t you know it, families started talking again. People lingered at more shiurim. Husbands helped their wives clean the home. This gives us all something to think about. Rav Eliezer Ginsburg, Shlit”a, mentioned that, l’havdil, in the mosque, there are cubbies for people to leave their shoes and their cell phones before they come in to pray. Sadly this is something that we can learn from too.
Here’s another thought. Torah is not like any other branch of wisdom. If you want to be an accountant, it helps to be good at numbers and then you hit the books to learn the rules and regulations. Presto, you’re a CPA. With more application and a different set of books, you can pass the bar and become a lawyer or go to medical school and become a doctor. Torah doesn’t work that way. In Pirkei Avos we are taught that there are forty-eight tools one needs to acquire to become a talmud chocham. One of the forty-eight is “Nosei b’ol im chaveiro, which means having empathy. Feeling another’s pain and suffering. Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath is a good litmus test to see whether we have empathy. Did we feel for the pregnant women who were evacuated in the middle of labor from NYU, Bellevue and Coney Island Hospitals? Or the ICU patients? While we sat at the Shabbos table after the hurricane, did we hurt for those people who would never again sit by the Shabbos table they were accustomed to all of their lives because their homes were washed away? What about the elderly? Did we contemplate their difficulty with change in their golden years, having to face not only the loss of their homes but their entire neighborhoods, not to mention the hundreds of nursing home patients who had to be evacuated, some in the midst of 60 mph winds?
It is a good reality check to notice whether we stopped to daven for these people. If we thought, how can we help all the children that lost all of their toys? Or, the dating girls who lost all of their dresses? And, the list goes on. Of course, empathy needs to be sharpened because it is the empathetic person who goes to the doctor with his wife when she is worried, and the wife who is there to give encouragement when her husband must hit the pavement to look for a job.
May it be the will of Hashem that all those who have suffered loss, may He replenish them with much good, may we all be healthy and safe, and may Hashem bless us with long life and everything wonderful.