Wednesday, September 07, 2005


by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The United States of America has just experienced one of the worst natural disasters in its history. History books will record for all time that in the year 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept up the Gulf Coast, taking thousands of lives as it wreaked havoc.

Hundreds of thousands were left without their homes, jobs and belongings. The storm uprooted their very identities. Government was unveiled as an achizas einayim—a deceptive illusion. The president failed to communicate with the people. The local authorities were unmasked as bumbling fools. Police charged with public safety couldn’t handle the pressure and walked away from the job, despondent and broken.

Blacks blamed the upheaval which followed in the wake of the disaster on whites and whites blamed it on blacks. Anarchy ruled. People were killed and countless others died in the chaos. Everyone was pointing a finger at someone else. Weeks after order will be restored and waters drained, life will hopefully start returning to a semblance of normalcy.

The shock and agony will soon recede with the storm waters, but while the calamity is still fresh in our minds we should hear the rush of the levees and take to heart some lessons.

As believing Jews, we know that Hashem is in full control of all that happens and that there is a Divine purpose behind all that transpires. We accept that we do not understand His ways but when tragedy happens, our knee-jerk reaction is to find a guilty party to attach blame to.

More Than An Uncanny ‘Coincidence’

Some of us have the tendency to find fault in others instead of ourselves. It is easier and far more convenient to say that Katrina was G-d’s way of getting even with New Orleans for the decadence that characterized that city.

Others posited that it was G-d getting even with President Bush for forcing Israel to evacuate Gaza. They can even prove it, citing the following phenomenon making the rounds in hundreds of emails:

“Ten thousand Jews were expelled from their homes to satisfy President Bush and Secretary Rice. They were made refugees in their own country. There are approximately 6 million people in Israel. 10,000 divided by 6,000,000 equals 0.00167.

“Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, completely desolating the city. New Orleans has a population of 500,000. US News agencies are openly referring to those displaced by the hurricane “refugees.” There are approximately 300 million people in the United States. 500,000 divided by 300,000,000 equals 0.00167.”

The Gemorah in Yevamos [73a] informs us that ein puronios boh l’olam eluh b’shvil Yisroel, retribution is visited on the world only on behalf of Israel. Rashi explains this to mean that misfortune is inflicted on the nations of the world so that the Jews should become afraid and repent.

When disaster befalls the world, we should look inward and contemplate where and how we fall short, instead of trying to pin the blame on others. We are to heed the call of the hour and do teshuva. It may be that Bush deserves a slap on the wrist; it may be true that New Orleans is a decadent city, but the Gemorah teaches us to look beyond such conclusions and derive other messages from the catastrophe.

We are not prophets, nor do we know of any who can translate the occurrences of the world to us, and it is foolish and unproductive for us to speculate. Our duty at a time like this is to turn the spotlight on our own actions and fix what needs repair.

Witnessing people in the most dire straits, fighting desperately to stay alive, ought to teach us something about our lives. We imagine ourselves to be all powerful and in control of our own destiny. We go through life thinking that nothing can affect us; we are oblivious to the maelstrom around us. We are full of ga’avah, smugness.

If things are going our way we don’t bother to remember that we have to thank Hashem for our good fortune. We tell ourselves, “kochi ve’otzem yodi asoh li es hachayil hazeh.” We delude ourselves into thinking that our success is due to our superior intelligence and business acumen.

We don’t realize how fragile we really are. We fail to remember that the human body is frail, that our intelligence is limited and that it doesn’t take much to incapacitate us. Powerful people who thought they were strong and invincible have withered away. Wealthy men, who thought their money would last them forever, lost everything and sit in refuge centers, broken and impoverished.

Humility, anavah, is the choicest of midos, a way of life we all must aspire to in our dealing with others. When we ponder the frailty of man and our utter dependence upon the grace of G-d for our very existence, it should be obvious that ga’avah has no place.

As we go through Elul we should remember that To’avas Hashem kol gevah lev; we should work to eradicate that odious midah from within ourselves.

From The Heights Of Hubris

Overcome with hubris, people believe that they control the forces of this world. Last week they found out once again they do not and that realization overwhelmed them. People scrambled about and fought to save themselves, as the storm sucked them away. Leaders stood about wringing their hands and shaking their heads.

Everyone thought it couldn’t happen here; these things don’t happen in America, they only happen in other countries.

We like to think that we are safe, even when we hear about terrible things that have actually happened; we lull ourselves into thinking that it can’t happen to us. Perhaps this ought to be a lesson to us that when the Torah prescribes what will happen to people who don’t follow in Hashem’s way, our job is to absorb the truth that it can indeed happen to us as well, Rachmono litzlan. The only way we will be spared is by following the Torah’s guidelines. Only in that way will we be deserving of Hashem’s mercy, not his wrath.

Fatal Oversights

That New Orleans was headed for trouble was nothing new. For years experts had predicted the catastrophe that struck last week but no one listened.

In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a hurricane hitting New Orleans would be the deadliest of the three disasters most likely to occur in America; the other two were the long-feared “big one” in San Francisco and a terrorist attack on New York.

“No one can say they did not see it coming,” reported the Times-Picayune from New Orleans. Five years ago that newspaper published a series predicting the disaster.

Everyone was warned; they knew it was coming, they knew why it was coming, but they did nothing to prevent it from happening. The levees could have been built up and other precautions could have been taken. None were.

Those oversights turned out to be fatal. The response of the city’s leaders in dealing with the disaster demonstrated their inadequacy. The mayor and governor were as if paralyzed. They seemed to be occupied solely with transferring blame to the federal government and away from themselves.

Apparently, people have to be coached and groomed for greatness. We count on leaders possessing the requisite authority, wisdom and will power to deal effectively with an emergency. Without effective leadership, society is like a ship adrift in a storm. New Orleans suffered precisely this fate.

By contrast, when faced with the unparalleled 9/11 disaster, New York had the good fortune to be led by a mayor and governor who demonstrated solid leadership. They exhorted people to rise above the situation and act bravely in the face of the horror. People heeded the example of their leaders and behaved nobly.

Just attaching blame will get us nowhere, we have to use tragedy to spur us to the greatness which lies dormant inside each and every one of us.

Elul issued us a wake up call. We all know that Rosh Hashana is coming. We all know that on Rosh Hashana we are judged for all we have done throughout the year. We all know that our lives depend on how we are judged on that fateful day. But we ignore the warnings. We coast along, thinking we have all the time in the world.

Katrina sent us a thunderous message, urging us to get our houses in order before Tishrei arrives, to use the gift of Elul to prepare ourselves for the Yom Hadin. We have a month to cleanse ourselves, and to repair the breaches in our dealings with one another and in our observance of the mitzvos. We are given four weeks to right ourselves and straighten out our accounts with Hashem and our fellow Jews.

Let this hurricane serve as a warning of what can happen if we fail to make the necessary repairs in our avodah bein odom lamakom and bein odom lachaveiro.

Four years ago, also in the month of Elul, 19 terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon, killing approximately 3,000 innocent people and sending a shudder down hundreds of millions of spines. The atrocity shook us all up; we all said that the world would never be the same. We got the message and were determined to improve our ways. We all davened that year as we never davened before.

And then the effect wore off. Some of us may have retained the impact of that devastating event but most of us forgot and went back to our old ways.

Four years later, another, perhaps even greater human tragedy befalls the country. Four years later we are shown again how impotent we really are. Four Eluls later we are witness to the utter powerlessness of man in the face of Hashem’s fury.

The novi exhorts us rachatzu hizaku, hosiru roah maaleleichem,- wash yourselves off of your sins.

Hakadosh Boruch Hu has shown that his patience can wear out. He has sent yet another reminder that time is running out and we must heed His warnings.

Rav Elazar ben Avina, in Yevomos [ibid], explains from where he derives that misfortune befalls the world because of Am Yisroel: Shene’emar hichrati goyim, nashamu pinosam, hechravti chutzosam U’chsiv, omarti al tiree osi, tikchu mussar.

“Hakadosh Boruch Hu says, ‘I have destroyed nations; their buildings have become desolate; their streets have been destroyed.’ The reason for this follows in the next posuk. ‘Hashem says the purpose of this is to inspire you to fear Me and take mussar’ [and improve yourselves.]”

Throughout the month of Elul, as we hear the shofar blown every morning after Shacharis, we are reminded that the day is fast approaching when the excuses will run out.

We all have work to do, let’s get to it faster than the federal government got to New Orleans.


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