Rosh Hashanah 2017-Hurricanes and Suffering

We have a Jewish saying, “Let the old year end with all of its sorrows, and the New Year begin with all of its blessings.”

I think we are ready for that. As we watch the old year fade into the new, we are acutely aware of how much pain and destruction and we have seen in the past year, and just over the past month.

This has been a year when humankind has been humbled by nature. It has been proven to us, that we are not the masters of the world, despite our delusions to the contrary.
Still, I don’t accept Harvey and Irma, African drought and South Asia flooding, or any natural disasters as “acts of G-d.”

Frankly, I think it is a blasphemous insult to suggest Gd deliberately causes suffering.

Nonetheless, when disaster strikes, people always ask, “Why?” Whether it is a personal illness or other crisis, a local tragedy, or a large scale natural disaster, our first gut level reaction is to ask, “Why?”

There is, however, a problem with the Why Question.

Asking “Why” or “Why me?” presumes that there is a reason that this particular person is suffering. Indeed, human beings are psychology wired to look for patterns and reasons, for cause and effect. We constantly seek to better understand our world. It starts around the age of 6 months, when babies play “Drop.” What will happen if I drop my bottle from my high chair? Does gravity still work? Every time?
Even my cat Spock likes to play this game. (Only cute until he broke my iPhone screen.)

But people look for patterns because if we can figure out what caused a disaster or problem, we can imagine ourselves immune from the problem. We think we can avoid the bad things that happen to other people.

“I live way above sea level, so I’m safe.”
“I don’t smoke and I exercise, so I won’t get cancer.”
“I drive safely.” 

But none of this really prevents illness, tragedy, or disaster. In some cases, there may be a grain of truth. Smoking can cause cancer, but not every smoker gets cancer, and not every cancer patient smoked. So it still comes back to “Why me?”

And of course the person who has been spared rarely asks, “Why not me?”

Once we start playing the “Why” game, the answer leads to the Blame Game. Why didn’t somebody prevent it? Plan better, build better, give more warning?

And then the next step devolves into blaming the victim.
Why didn’t they build on stilts? Don’t they have flood insurance? What do they expect living on the beach? Why didn’t they leave?
Why do they live on the beach when they know the danger?
Why do Californians build houses in fire-prone canyons and on earthquake fault lines?
Why didn’t they exercise more, get their mammogram or colonoscopy, eat organic, or drive a safer car? They must have been a smoker, or drinker, or too fat or too thin.

Why wasn’t this disaster prevented?

Because if I can just find the answer to that question, I can blame the victim for not somehow preventing it, and I can self-righteously return to the safety and comfort of my own safe, protected life.

But of course that is all delusion. And rather than understanding this better than generations before us, we in fact are more deluded than they were.

We live at a time and place where infant mortality is rare, we have antibiotics, air-conditioning, reasonable accurate weather forecasts, cancer therapies, building codes and health departments.
We are more insulated from the fragility of life than any other time in human history. We have moved beyond using medicine for healing the sick to surgery for fixing wrinkles. And in the process we have come to believe that every one of us will live to a ripe old age with excellent health and with plenty of wealth.
But while we hope and pray this is true, and that no one, God Forbid, should face misfortune or catastrophe, we also need to acknowledge that we live in an imperfect world.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Because that is the way of the world.

Contrary to the prosperity theology of televangelists, wealth is not a sign that someone has God’s favor, in fact, the financial crisis showed us just the opposite, it is often a sign of cutthroat greed and outright immoral and even illegal behavior.
Wealth may indeed be a sign that someone has worked long and hard for what they have,
Or perhaps they are ‘privileged’ by birth, skin color, DNA, good schools or simple luck.

So similarly, bad luck, poverty, a flooded neighborhood, a health challenge, disability or a foreclosure doesn’t say anymore about a person’s character, integrity, or worth than prosperity.

We talk about Tzedakah, when those who have more give to those who have less. The Hebrew word means the Right Thing, unlike charity, which means love. We are obligated to give whether we feel loving or not. It’s just the right thing to do. 
Gemilut Hasadim is not limited to what rich can do for the poor, a poor person can visit the rich when they are sick or bereaved, or join them in celebrating a wedding, a bar mitzvah, or a baby naming.

From Torah times till today, being an innocent, good, or holy person has never meant being exempt from suffering.

No, humanity has never been spared from heartache. Pain and tragedy are part of life, and righteousness has never been able to prevent it. So when we see someone suffering, let us not fall into the smug trap of blaming them and thereby excusing ourselves from action.

In real life, now, as in ancient times, good people suffer. While bad things sometimes happen because of our own poor choices or because of evil intent, life isn’t that simple, and often there is absolutely no reason why a particular person is hurting, or for that matter, why anyone at all is suffering.

“Why?” And “Why me?” are the wrong questions.

The questions we should ask in the face of suffering, are the questions that we can answer, such as:

What can I do to help?
“What can I do to ameliorate this situation?”
How can I snatch spiritual and emotional triumph from my own trials and defeats?
How can I best handle troubles?

Obviously little troubles and major ones. It’s just that when it’s my problem it’s so hard to keep things in perspective.

There are everyday troubles and problems, such as financial worries, difficult bosses and co-workers, even what might be called mixed blessings, such as beloved, but difficult family members.

I was shopping and heard someone call out, “Why me?” When a rabbi hears that question, the red lights start flashing. I turned to see a new mother with a 3 week old baby. She was sleep deprived and stressed out, and frustrated that even a routine shopping trip wasn’t easy with a cranky baby.

Her stress was very real and there may have been more going on, but it appeared she was still learning to cope with everyday frustrations of parenting.

But if she could have seen it from another view, her crying newborn was a blessing. A somewhat annoying blessing at that moment, but a blessing nonetheless. Infertile couples would love to have that problem.

We are all going to face minor and major challenges and troubles in our lives. We can transcend them by cultivating gratitude for what we have and focus less on what we lack. In the face of loss, we have memories, in the face of ongoing challenges, we have life, hope, and all the strengths that make us who we are. If we are part of a community like this, we have people to help us through the hard times. God willing, we will discover strengths within ourselves that we didn’t realize we had, and find the inspiration and ability to overcome our troubles.
But what about when it’s other people hurting. Shall we blame or avoid them?

Really-I expect that if you are here in this room with me, I don’t need to ask such a question.
But just to review a few mitzvot…

Our Torah tells us,
Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, which is to say, Don’t be a bystander when someone is in danger.
When your neighbor needs assistance, don’t turn away.
When your neighbors need a loan, you must help them.
Be careful not to oppress the widow, the orphan or the non-citizen among you. 
Leave food behind in your field for the poor, the widow, and the orphan so they can collect it without having to beg for it.

When we are looking at other people’s suffering, it is even more important to ask the right questions. Not “why did this happen to them?” but rather,

How can I provide emotional, financial, logistical or spiritual support to the people who are affected?

What can I do to help the people of Houston, Florida, the Caribbean Islands?

Obviously as individuals we cannot prevent hurricanes, or famine but as a society, we can improve how our governments and relief agencies respond.
From Katrina, Florida learned than relying on personal transportation for evacuations is inadequate, as Irma approached Florida, better plans were in place, and implemented.

Good for the state of Florida. That is Teshuvah, when we learn from and don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

But individual citizens, and, I might add, non-citizens, made a huge impact in Houston. Boat owners from all around the area and beyond used their watercraft, time, energy, and strength to rescue people from Harvey. They asked themselves, “What can I do to help?”

Living, thank G-d, far from the disasters, we as individuals know the answer to “What can I do to help?”
We can support the charities that are best able to get emergency aid on the ground quickly and efficiently.

And I know it can be hard to know where to send your money, but I hope you have already donated to emergency assistance or are planning to.

In the aftermath of Katrina it was Walmart that proved amazingly well situated to provide water, food, and emergency supplies with an already-in-place distribution system. They out-performed FEMA in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Walmart has now pledged 20 million dollars matching customer contributions 2:1 for relief. Because they have a successful track record of quick response, I trust Walmart’s efforts.

A few other outstanding corporations are also offering millions in aid and are raising more from the wider community.
Jewish philanthropists Michael and Susan Dell of Dell Computers, recognizing the need to help their own community, have pledged a whopping $36 million to assist his fellow Texans.
This is part of a larger plan known as the Rebuild Texas Fund that is being launched through the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Through this fund, $18 million is immediately being donated. The overall goal is to raise $100 million that will go toward rebuilding Houston.

I’m sure you have heard about Mattress Mack opening his stores as shelters. This is a case of someone looking at the situation and asking himself, “What can I do to help?” and coming up with an immediate solution to an immediate crisis. Some people are a little cynical about him, figuring he will sell plenty of mattresses and furniture as a result of his kindness, and he may indeed, but this is not the first instance of Mack’s generosity. He also helped fund the nation’s first mobile stroke unit, a specialized ambulance, and ran a fundraiser for the Salvation Army to which he donated $50,000 of his own money.

Our Howard County Jewish Federation has not only raised our goal of $10,000 to respond to the famine in Uganda, but it raised over double that amount! Way to go Howard County!
Now there is a great need here in North America, and again I have faith in our community that we will rise to the occasion.

Our Federation is now assisting in collecting funds for on-the-ground organizations is Houston, and no doubt by the time I deliver this, they will have expanded their efforts to include relief for Irma victims.

All of these are people and organizations are asking the question, “What can I do to help?” In Hebrew we talk about Gemilut Hasadim, acts of kindness, or put even more strongly, Mesirat Nefesh, sacrificing our comfort or time or resources to help others. That is to say, giving beyond the comfortable point that we can afford and not feel it.

This means not just the pocket change at the end of the day going into a Red Cross tin, but making a meaningful effort to make a difference. Some can offer boats, others money, or even shelter in a mattress store. But all of them are helping their neighbors, whether we understand that to be in Howard County, or our neighbors in Texas, Florida, or the Caribbean.

Spending these holy days in our own prayer, or Tefillah, is certainly central to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But notice that most of our prayers are in the plural. We and Our and Us. Facing disaster from a distance pushes us to expand our sense of Us-ness, so to speak, of recognizing who is “We.”

And if we truly “get” our prayers, we come to realize that while there are ever widening circles of We, there are very very few “Theys” in the world that we would fail to see as our brothers and sisters were in time of need.

Several years ago when an earthquake struck Iran, they did announce they would accept aid from anyone except their arch-enemy, Israel. So ok, there are a few spots that we cannot reach. But many many more that we can.

Israel had been secretly helping Syrians for years. They have brought food and medical aid caravans to Syrians who were astonished to learn where the aid was coming from. That program has now gone public.

Our tradition holds that each of us is responsible for our own sins, but we are also responsible as a community for the kind of world we maintain. We therefore share responsibility for each other’s sins, because we tolerate the problems in our society that lead people to sin. If this is true, then it is our collective mitzvot that can raise each other up.
And if we share responsibility for each other’s sins, then certainly we share responsibility for each other’s well being.

Collective responsibility is highlighted on the Yom Kippur liturgy. Next week will recite the confessional prayers. These are all stated in the plural. We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen….
For the sins which we have committed before you, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

As individuals we are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and likewise,
As a community we are also judged.

Back in 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans, our congregation donated our entire High Holy Days appeal to relief. I wish I could say that we are in a position to do that again. But we are not.

So while I have used this talk to ask you to support those in need beyond our community, I hope you will also help Congregation Shalom Aleichem, so that next time disaster strikes we will again be able to offer that kind of generosity as a congregation.

As the Rosh Hashanah prayer teaches us, Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah, Repentance, Prayer, and charity alleviate the severity of the decree.

As the TV character, Red Green used to say, “Remember, We’re all in this together.”

In 5778, I wish and pray for you to have all you need and more. To have great abundance to gratefully share with others, and to experience good health, love of friends and family, much joy, and all other good things. May you and yours all be inscribed in the book of Life.

September 26th, 2017 by