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Storm image © Daniel Tger / 123RF.com

Tuesdays with Morey

5777 is behind us, and it certainly went out with a bang.  Flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes made for a very dramatic ending to a very dramatic year. The high holiday liturgy includes the heartfelt prayer of unetane tokef that suggests that these natural catastrophes and the destruction they have wrought were, in essence, decreed to come about last year – on Rosh Hashanah it was written, on Yom Kippur sealed...who shall live and who shall die….and even more specifically…mi ba ra’ash - who by shall die by storm.

In a world where there were at one time no other reasonable explanations for nature’s chaotic upheavals, our liturgy preserves what was considered the best explanation possible – that our fate was decreed, that there was a reason we deserved this; however, as science has discovered, nature’s course, though at times destructive to humankind, is in reality part of preserving our planet, and need not be taken personally.

Earth is earthly and imperfect.  The nature of the physical is that nothing about it is permanent.  Everything physical is bound to change, to shift, to become unstable at one time or another – this is the way of the earth upon which we live. In fact, today we know a lot about hurricanes. For instance, hurricanes down dead tree limbs and even whole trees. This is a way that nature removes dead trees from the forest, which in turn makes room in the forest for more sunlight to shine down upon newer trees.  It also dumps large amounts of debris on the forest floor where bacteria, insects, and worms can decompose these materials and return sorely needed nutrients to the soil. In the wake of a hurricane, there is often a fair amount of flooding and beach erosion. This actually helps to revitalize the beach, move the landscape and create more homes for the sand crabs, sandpiper birds and other animals that depend on the beach for their homes and their food.

Now, these events are clearly not so good for human beings with beachfront homes, but it's a fact of nature that our landscape is naturally in constant flux. The earth’s crust, for instance, is broken up at earthquake faults and recreated by volcanoes. Over time, mountains rise higher, rivers dry up and lakes are created and destroyed by flooding.

The biblical Job suffers the loss of sons and daughters to a powerful wind that collapses the roof atop them.  His search for understanding as to what he or they did to deserve this fate, based on the assumption that there was a reason for it, comes to an end when God appears and chastises him for his assumptions:

From out of a storm, the Lord said to Job:

Why do you talk so much when you know so little?

Now get ready to face me! Can you answer the questions I ask?

How did I lay the foundation for the earth? Were you there?

Doubtless you know who decided its length and width.

What supports the foundation? (Job 38:1-6)

In other words, what happens in nature is part of a complex system set up from the beginning of creation – a system that does not pack deeper existential meaning for human beings, no matter how much they might prefer that it would.

For me, hurricanes and earthquakes are very humbling, serving as reminders that in essence we are not the “be all and end all” of creation.  While we might like to believe that, in fact, life on this planet is very complex and we are but one element – the earth through nature, is programmed to reset and revive when need be, and when it does, it does not take into consideration what is best for human beings. 

By way of explanation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in 2005,

Natural disasters have no explanation other than that God, by placing us in a physical world, set life within the parameters of the physical. Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur, and sometimes innocent people die. To wish it were otherwise is in essence to wish that we were not physical beings at all. [1]

This then was God’s message to Job, and so it is a reminder to us as well.  Humbling though it might be to think this way, hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that our lives are inextricably woven together with this planet upon which we live.  At times it’s power will even manifest itself in ways that may endanger us.

May we be blessed with the wisdom to learn how to best evade its danger and be inspired in the wake of its destruction to work harder toward making the planet safer for us and for those less privileged and more vulnerable than ourselves.

[1] - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Times (UK) January 01, 2005 , Why does God allow terrible things to happen  to His people?

Rabbi Morey Schwartz is Director of Education for the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. These thoughts are based on an approach that Rabbi Schwartz elaborates upon extensively in his book Where’s My Miracle, published by Gefen Publishers.

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