These past two weeks have seen unprecedented destruction sweeping across the United States.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey an estimated 30,000 people will need temporary shelter, 14 000 national guards were activated to help save people and 450 000 will need disaster assistance from FEMA. Losses due to destruction are estimated at $75 billion. 70 people died directly from or events related to the hurricane. In Florida as a result of hurricane Irma, 7 million people fled the state, and more than 6.7 million people were without power in Florida. This accounts for 2/3 of the population of the state. The carribean Islands of St Marten, Anguila and Barbuda were had damage to 75-90% of their buildings. 34 people died in events related to hurricane Irma in the Carribean, 26 in Florida. And now Maria has devastated Dominica, and has swept across the US Virgin Islands and across Puerto Rico, and an extremely powerful earthquake has hit Mexico City killing over 200 people.
All of this devastation and suffering is happening right before Rosh Hashanah, and so we must ask ourselves what message are we to take from this? It seems like over the years, this has been the pattern before Rosh Hashanah, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans before RH in 2005, hurricane Sandy decimated the NY coastline in 2012. The most obvious message would seem to be that the hurricane season is in the late summer, which corresponds to the time right before the High Holidays. But why is that so, why did the Almighty make it so that hurricane season and the Jewish High Holidays converge?
When we see this tragedy unfolding in front of us across the United States and the Caribbean, we are being given a powerful message before Rosh Hashanah, which is that is that life is not something we can take for granted. Life is precarious, the stability of our lives is precarious, having those we love around us be there for us is not something we should take for granted. We think the status quo is something that we can take as a given. But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tell us otherwise. We are told in the machzor, the High Holiday prayer book, that on Rosh Hashanah our fate for the next year is determined by the Almighty. In a few moments we say ‘on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed’, and we will be praying for another year of life, another year of health, and another year of livelihood. The hurricanes teach us that we cannot take these things for granted and that we need to turn to the Almighty in prayer and we need to improve ourselves so that we be worthy to receive His blessings for the coming year.
But even after having seen these images in front of us in the media, and seeing and hearing of so many people whose lives and well-being are in the balance, we still do not really feel it. It is still not real to us. We do not really feel like the inhabitants of Puerto Rico who have hurricane Maria bearing down on them. We are not bawling out our prayers and tears to the Almighty asking for Him to help us, and that the fate of our lives is in the balance like the people in the Caribbean, or asking Him for help in rebuilding like the people of Texas and Florida undoubtedly are. Why is that? Should we be more distressed and distraught over this impending ‘verdict’ for the coming year as the prayerbook calls it? I think there are several reasons that we are not feeling the reality that our fate is being determined on this day.
The first reason is that we have not experienced firsthand what it means to have our life in the balance. Some of us might have struggled with health issues, or have close family members who have struggled with these issues, or some of us may be from Florida or New Orleans and have lived through what it means to have our homes decimated, but most of us have not. Here are some pictures of what it is like. It is hard for us to imagine this, to be standing in 3 feet of water in your living room, having your belongings drenched, not being able to live in your house for weeks or months. Or even to not have electricity and air conditioning for a week like people I know in Florida. And since we have not had everything taken away, or have never really lived through these hardships, we do not know what it is really like to beseech the Almighty for our lives and wellbeing. My grandmother, who by the way was a refugee during the Holocaust, used to talk more about living through World War One in Austria when there were food quotas and they lived on the brink of starvation. It was etched into her consciousness. A person who has been through such life experiences knows what it means to really pray for their lives. We do not really know what this kind means of vulnerability means. We live in an era of the greatest prosperity in the history of mankind. We have luxuries, air conditioning, unlimited clean water, unlimited selection of food whenever we want it, which the majority of people in the world do not have, and that wealthy people in past did not even have. And so we tend to take it all for granted. When we see the decimation the hurricanes are causing, one message we can take away from it is to feel the reality of the transience of life, and to internalize the idea of our reliance upon the Almighty for our well-being for the coming year, and to open up our hearts in prayer in a real way.
The second reason that we do not feel the reality of Rosh Hashanah is a good one. It is that we believe that even though we are being judged on Rosh Hashanah, the Almighty is not out to ‘get us’. G-d is not looking to nab us on our wrongs. -Okay time for a little comic interlude. Joe is lonely, so he goes out and buys a parrot for some company. The parrot talks to him alright, but it is outright abusive. Joe is stupid, joe is a jerk, I hate Joe. Joe asks the parrot to stop, he will not stop. Joe warns the parrot, but it ignores him. Finally Joe can’t take it anymore, and he grabs the parrot and sticks him in the freezer. He hears the parrot cratching around, and then all goes silent. Joe gets scared, he wanted to scare the parrot but he did not want to kill it. So opens up the freezer and there is the parrot, looking all contrite. The parrot says Joe, I feel really bad, I should not have been so mean, do you forgive me? Joe says yes, sure I do. The parrot then says ‘but I just have one question’, and pointing to the frozen chickens in the freezer asks ‘what did they do?.’
We believe that the Almighty is like a loving parent. In the central prayer we will be saying on Yom Kippur, we say ‘Avinu Malknu’, our Father our King. The Father comes before King, and we know the Almighty relates to us as a parent would to their child. A parent sometimes has to teach a child a lesson, if a young child runs out into the street the parent will have to speak to them sternly so they know what they have done is very serious, they may even need to ground them. But they will look for the minimum punishment that will convey the message. And if the parent sees that the child really gets the message, then they do not even need to punish them at all. So too we believe, as the sages say ‘that the Almighty inclines to the side of mercy.’ The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 17b says that there are three people, the righteous, the wicked and the average person, the beinoni. Even though the beinoni might have made many mistakes over the past year, Beis Hillel teaches that G-d’s quality of Rav Chesed, Great Goodness, one of the 13 qualities of G-d’s mercy, means that G-d inclines to the side of mercy. If our count is balanced 50/50 the Almighty will give us a good verdict, and overlook the negative.
Yet even though we believe the Almighty is merciful, we still need to feel the urgency of prayer. The sages tell us that when the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer were closed, but the gates of tears were not closed. When we pray to invoke G-d’s mercy, what we are telling the Almighty is that we got the message and do not need the consequence. That is why we are told that prayer can change a negative decree. G-d does not need us to grovel before Him (or Her), to beg and bow. We do it so we can feel our own contrition, and so we are motivated to try and change ourselves and our actions.
This is the three pronged action plan laid down in the Netanah Tokef, the prayer that says that on Rosh Hashanah our fate will be inscribed. It continues and says even though our lives for the next year has been written down, Teshuva, Tefila, and Tzedaka, Changing our actions, Prayer and Charity can change our fate and our outcome. Prayer is beseeching the Almighty, and it is self-transformation, but it is also a vehicle to bring about change in our actions. This is the Teshuvah. RH is also a time to envision new goals for ourselves, new possibilities in our lives. Yes I can make that career change, yes I can repair that frayed relationship (or end the over-frayed relationship), yes I can break the destructive habit, yes I can be more focused on my spiritual and Jewish life.
And the best way to change my actions is through charity, by being a more giving person. I can give charity through financial support, and I can give charity through personal support. I can be a listening ear to someone who is down, I can visit someone in the hospital, I can network to try to help someone get a job. We are told that the time of year going from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is a time to intensify our efforts in these areas of our lives. All of these efforts, teshuva, tefila, tzedaka, repentance, prayer and charity become all the more real when we listen to the messages that have been sent to us through the recent events in the world around us. So, unfortunately, this year on Rosh Hashanah, we can take the message of the devastation of Harvey, Irma and now Maria to drive home the reality that life is precarious, and that we can merit the Almighty’s blessings by turning towards Him in prayer and by improving ourselves for the coming year.