The following is the message I was able to get out to the congregation prior to Shabbat Vayera.
I trust that you and your families are safe and that if you suffered any damage it was not catastrophic. As long as the damage was only to property and each and every one of us is uninjured I will proclaim my thanks and sing our blessings. My family and I were fortunate. Our house was unscathed. Our neighborhood suffered many downed trees and power lines. As frustrating as our present circumstances might be, they are, compared to far too many, only an inconvenience, albeit a maddening one, given that we still have no power or heat or phones or the mighty Internet. We are forced to walk a half-mile where we can receive cell phone reception. Thus like our forebears we have to venture to this well in order to connect with others.
At such times it becomes apparent that as our lives become increasingly dependent on technology we become quickly crippled without it. The World Wide Web is now reduced to our small neighborhood. Today it is only those who we can see and converse with face to face. It would seem that there is no global community when we are confronted by a hurricane. Now our lives are once again local. Amazon and Google, Apple and Verizon, LIPA and Cablevision are no match for nature’s fury. The wind and the waves, the ocean and the sea have won—again.
And Job cried out to God. And God answered out of the tempest saying, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?...Have you penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38) Our human ingenuity is in truth no match for nature. We cannot tame the sea. We can only stand in awe. Let us relearn that human beings have great limitations and that nature commands our utmost respect. More often, I still recall, nature’s majesty asks me for admiration. Today I stand in fear.
Hurricane Sandy was a devastating storm. It will take us months and perhaps even years to recover. So much was destroyed. Far too many lives were lost. Yet in the midst of the whirlwind I discovered something anew. I found again the meaning of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, hospitality.
In this week’s portion Abraham welcomes three visitors and prepares a meal for them. They deliver news of the impending birth of Isaac. (Genesis 18) Once when hiking with Bedouin guides in Israel’s desert I learned of the importance of hospitality. The Bedouin live far apart and are dependent on passers by for information. Travelers shared know-how about the wilderness they traversed, whether the usual route was blocked or the path washed out by flash floods. The Bedouin would loudly grind bitter coffee to announce that travelers were lodging in their tent. When people heard the rhythmic pounding of the coffee beans they would come to gather in order to hear what news the travelers had to share.
Today the sound of chainsaws and generators call neighbors together. We gather to see what news others have gleaned. At first we asked each other if they were ok. Then it turned to the questions of: How are the roads? Where can you get cell phone reception? Where is there Wi-Fi? (I am presently at the Huntington train station where there is Wi-Fi.) Where can you buy gas? Where did you see LIPA trucks? What can we do to help?
Of the many mitzvot, hospitality is among the most important. We reach beyond the boundaries of our private homes and welcome others in. We even welcome strangers into our lives. “How can we help?” must become our new mantra. The Talmud reports that Rav Judah once said that welcoming other people is even greater than greeting the Divine Presence. (Shabbat 127)
There is a pressing need that even when the power is restored and the routers once again flicker green that we still walk through our neighborhoods and reach out to others offering more than a friendly wave. We will offer them the comfort of our human presence. Why must we wait for a hurricane to be neighborly? The question must become what can we do for others.
Soon our power will be restored and we will be tempted to once again retreat to our virtual world. Will we choose instead to look out at the pain that continues on our very own Long Island? Some even in our own congregation may be hurting. And so we must pledge to bring healing to others, to our neighbors, to our community. Once we have tended to our own repairs this must become our focus.
As always if you need any help or support please feel free to reach out to me. I apologize that I have been difficult to reach during this hour of need. I too am limited by technology.
We will be unable to gather for Shabbat Services this evening given that the synagogue building still does not have power. I would have liked to be together at this moment, but it is impossible and perhaps even unwise given how many streets are still impassible. We will join for Shabbat prayers next Friday when we will gather to sing prayers of thanks as a community.
Stay warm and stay safe.