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Chayei Sarah and Hurricane Sandy Sermon

Below is my sermon from Friday, November 9 when we were finally able to gather together as a community following Hurricane Sandy.

This week’s Torah portion is called Chayei Sarah, the life of Sarah, but opens with her death.  She dies at the age of 127 years.  Abraham then buys a burial plot and buries her in Hebron in the Cave of Machpelah.  She is the first to be buried in this holy site.  Then Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. 

As much as I like talking Torah my thoughts are focused on Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.  So here is what I have learned from this still unfolding cataclysm.  This is what Sandy should teach us. 

First the mundane.  Losing electricity reminds us why we light Shabbat candles before sunset.   Although there are of course deeper explanations for this ritual, the most basic is that the candles provided light for the celebration that followed.  This is also why we read Torah only during daylight hours.  It is impossible to read from the scroll without light.  We tried it this past week in a darkened sanctuary.  It is impossible.

Second, we are far too dependent on technology.   I have now added a qualification to my discussions about the wonders of the iPhone and my wireless house.  They all require electricity.  I am in fact dependent not on my computer skills but instead on LIPA.  It is no longer so impressive to be able to stream music from my iPhone to the stereo!  None of it works without electricity.

As I quickly discovered our cell phones worked only sporadically and from certain precise locations in our neighborhood.  Perhaps communication is better when it is more human, when it is face to face.  I discovered that the human connection is indeed better.  There is something more authentic about going to a neighbor’s house to check on them and share wine rather than texting.

We require electrical power for even the most mundane.  We require our cars, and the gas that runs them, for far more than we even realize.  Had it been the usual routine for the Moskowitz’s I would not have begged other parents for a ride to Ari’s recent soccer game.  Susie and I would have driven two cars all the way to Patchogue because we were coming from different locations.  This past week it was impossible because my car was running impossibly low on gas.

Finally, the question of climate change.  I happen to believe the evidence is unequivocal.  I understand that some might hold different views.  Nonetheless we can’t keep building so close to the water and expect no harm.  We can’t just replenish our destroyed beaches.  I appreciate the call to rebuild.  I admire the sentiment.  Perhaps instead we should be thinking more strategically.  We need to make some fundamental changes in how we live, or at least where we live.  Or at the very least we need to better protect our vital infrastructure.  This seems obvious so soon after Sandy but the tendency is to fall back on what we know rather than change.  I know that change is difficult but it is required.  Sandy should be our wake up call.  If we go back to business as usual, if we simply rebuild and attempt to recreate what was destroyed and lost, then we will be back where we started.  Maybe it won’t be next summer, but it will happen again.  Pretending it can’t happen again will lead to our demise.  The island we cherish is threatened by climate change and the encroaching sea.  As much as I love the ocean and its beaches we had better figure out a better way to keep our distance.

Yes, we, in our immediate area, are very fortunate.  It is not simply that we lost less than others, but because of all that we have.  Sometimes as they say you have to give it up in order to better appreciate what you have.  Far too much of our modern lives are taken for granted.  One lasting lesson is that the simple conveniences of heat and electricity should never be taken for granted.  They are blessings that far too many still do not have.

Back to the Torah.  How does Eliezer find a wife for Isaac?  He devises a test.  He comes to the town’s well and waits to see who would offer him water.  Rebekah of course offers him water, as well as for his camels, and then invites him back to her family’s home for a meal.  The rabbis discern that hospitality is the true measure of the righteous. 

Like Eliezer I learned first hand of the blessing of hospitality.  Let us look at this hurricane as a test, not of course as one sent by heaven.  Let us see Sandy instead as a test granted to us so that we might improve our lives and that of our communities.  Will we go back to our same old ways?  Will we place band aids on all of our short term flaws?  Will we change nothing, hoping and praying that this will never happen again?  Or will we rise to the challenge and the test and say how must we change?

Eliezer devised a simple test for Isaac’s future wife.  Would she show hospitality?  Would she offer to water the camels as well?  We have a far greater test and challenge standing before us.  Once we care for the wounded and hurting, we must begin to ask how we can change, what we must change.  We have now been taught to appreciate our many blessings.  Let this lesson not be so fleeting.  Let it not be short lived. 

May God grant us much healing and even more wisdom to change the very ways we live.