We lost power. phone, wifi, for a week after Sandy and work was closed. We consider ourselves fortunate compared to the destruction in other homes and other neighborhoods. More importantly, we are fortunate to have had supportive neighbors and friends to spend the time with and rely upon. Everyone we encountered was supportive the community was supportive, the police, the local government, and utilities were supportive, as well as the local merchants. After the power came back many volunteered to help other communities in time, money, and blankets. There are many neighborhoods that were hit much harder – cars and homes washed away, fires and tree-fallings, and people killed. Even now there are many still without basic needs. Buses will be leaving from all the local synagogues tomorrow to help in various neighborhoods. A rabbi from one of the wealthy communities on the ocean sent out a letter asking for desperately needed cash even though we view it as a wealthy community. I have little to add beyond thank you, but below are selections from two sermons.
Rabbi Mishael Zion offers some thoughtful words:
Like a child obsessively building sand castles and moats on the beach only to see them washed away by the ocean, we spend our lives striving to create a protected space in which the waters of the world will not be able to wash over us. We call that protected space “home,” as Maya Angelou put it, that “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
For many it is only behind safe boundaries, inside the impermeable home (or in America, inside our car), that we can be ourselves. Nothing awakens the anxiety of permeability more than the image of waters seeping through homes. We feel penetrated and debased, and could easily turn inwards, shutting out all that washes over us.
Parashat Vayera is itself an exploration of the question of the impermeable home, in part through the idea of hospitality which weaves through the parasha.
Avraham, on the other hand, practices a “radical hospitality.” Old (and midrashically recovering from penal surgery), Avraham is described as “running” to bring food for his guests. There is no exploration of doors and boundaries here. In fact, there is no “in”; Avraham lives in an open tent. The midrash describes Avraham and Sara’s tent as open “to all four winds,” seeking to welcome guests regardless of where they come from. Far from a detail of nomadic architecture, Avraham’s tent has become the metaphor for Jewish hospitality and inclusivity. Avraham epitomizes this heroic unbounded existence.
In light of a deluge on homes and boundaries, one could expect society to give in to its anxiety and build even stronger boundaries. In many ways, the social structure is playing out more powerfully than ever in light of Superstorm Sandy. But as is often the case when society faces its fragility head on, we are also seeing a coming together which is most exhilarating. In seeing that גורל אחד לכולנו — “we are all of one fate” — people have been transcending the usual boundaries, those walls and islands we create around ourselves. Victor Turner described this feeling as “communitas,” the receding of boundaries of self, status and society and creation of a feeling of togetherness. Avraham’s hospitality is communitas to the extreme, totally transcending the boundaries between self and other. But communitas develops quickly even among Average Joe’s and Jane’s if faced with the right circumstances.
Sandy’s waters seem to have a sobering effect on our individualistic tendencies. For a moment, we are willing to be more generous with our boundaries. As the waters which made our homes permeable have washed through boundaries and undermined structure, so too people take less heed of impermeable boundaries. It is an opportunity for us to re-jigger our place on the spectrum between Lot and Avraham, to go beyond our average toward the heroic.
Selections from a sermon from Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky at the Irving Place Minyan
Usually, when I begin a speech, I start with something interesting, lighthearted or funny- to get your attention and lead into the speech itself. Permit me to deviate from that this week, because there is nothing funny, lighthearted or interesting about what so many of us are experiencing, and if not us, than our friends, loved ones and neighbors, and if not that, than people a few miles away from us in Long Beach or Far Rockaway who have lost everything to 14 foot waves, or a little farther away where helpless Senior Citizens are living without water or power in high rises on the Lower East Side. The scope of the utter devastation, the loss of so much- property, money and memories- is too much to comprehend. So what is there to say when perhaps it is more appropriate to say nothing? I’ve been struggling with this for the past few days, so permit me to share some of what I’ve been thinking that may give us a framework- I hope my words will be accepted, and apologize in advance if they are somehow simplistic, insensitive or inappropriate.
Another lesson we can learn from the Shunamite woman is that of perspective. When asked what he could do for her, the Shunamite woman refused to focus on what was glaringly missing from her life. She instead was thankful for the simple life she led and the gift of community and support she received. In reaching out to check in on you this week, many of you expressed similar sentiments. In the midst of depressing and crippling power outages, many of you wrote to me that you were enjoying the family togetherness this experience afforded. Now, I realize that family togetherness can be too much of a good thing, so if that applies to you, I hope you get back your power speedily, and especially your cable… One of you even focused on the character building aspect of the whole experience, writing how interesting it was to see his children redefine what are the “necessities” of life.
Rabbi Billet, in a heart rending letter, described the imcredible loss he personally suffered as “just money.” Of course, it is not our place to pass these judgments for others. Chazal tell us that Iyov’s friends were especially faulted for making these kinds of calculations on behalf of their friend who was going though epic tragedies. We can’t tell other people that “it’s just stuff,” because it’s not just stuff; it’s a lifetime of memories. Chazal also tell us that we are not supposed to offer words of comfort at the time that מתו מוטל לפניו, when a person is not yet buried and the loss of a loved one is still fresh. B”H, we have not suffered that kind of loss, but the loss of a home, or even significant damage to it, no doubt engenders feelings of grief and heartache. But it is humbling and heartening to see others who have suffered loss, or even great inconvenience, say the same thing.
Perhaps there is another lesson, though- one that may, indeed, provide a some comfort. When we leave a narrative incomplete, we realize that we still have a hand in writing the conclusion. Because as much as our community has suffered, we have also shown- and been shown- unprecedented levels of chessed, in the spirit of Avraham Avinu, whose hospitality and kindness were a by word and for him, even superseded the value of a conversation with God. In our community here at the IPM, throughout the past few days, we have been inundated with emails from people who are blessed to have power, heat, electricity and internet service, offering the use of their homes to anyone who wants, and people with fridge and freezer space and a dry home offering that, as well as Shabbos hospitality for sleeping and meals, or a place to drop the kids off to watch TV for a little bit. It’s amazing how much chessed can be done with a simple electrical outlet!
I want to share with you a question- a shaileh- that a member of our community asked me on Thursday morning. He has several families staying with him, but one of those families has relatives in a location that was unharmed by Sandy. For whatever reason, they were not comfortable staying with those relatives, and were staying with him. He wanted to know whether it was permissible to ask those people to stay with their family so he could open up the space they occupied in case an organization like Achiezer needed to place families from Far Rockaway or Long Beach. מי כעמך ישראל- this kind of selfless unity is what a community should be like, and not only at times of tragedy. Events like this remind us how powerless we are in the face of God’s awesome might, as expressed through natural disasters, and how pointless and insignificant our egos and so many of our personal issues may be in the face of this kind of destruction, when we need to respond affirmatively and positively. The only way to counter wrathful devastation is through constructive love- as Dovid Hamelech wrote כי אמרתי, עולם חסד יבנה, the world is built through acts of kindness and charity, and it must be rebuilt in the same way. There is still a lot more to be done as people begin sorting through the wreckage and debris- our friends and family will need help financially, physically and emotionally, and that is when we will put our best face forward.