Today’s Torah portion contains part of the Haggadah. My ancestors were wandering Arameans. And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Because we remember being strangers in the Land of Egypt, we are to take care of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Because we stood at the shores of the sea and saw the power and might, we know the fear that water can bring.
Indulge me for a moment. Every year I play a game at our seder table. I often do it with the kids in Hebrew School too. I am going on a journey, I am leaving Egypt and I am bringing with me an apple, a banana, a canteen. Now seriously, like many of our ancestors, who didn’t have much time to pack, what would you take? While a game, it is all too serious this morning. Difficult as it might be, what would you take. For real. Food, water, medicine. Photos, computers, books. Children. Seniors. Pets. Important papers. Jewelry. Do you know where they are? Could you grab them quickly? That’s what the Israelites had to do. That’s what our ancestors had to do when they were fleeing pogroms, when they left Europe quickly. That’s what our friends and families are confronting this very morning as they are fleeing the approaching storm.
This morning’s portion is about restoration—about renewal—about entering the land—after Egypt or after the Exile. We are told that it is a good land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Eretz zavat chalav.
Our American ancestors thought this was a good land. A land flowing with milk and honey, with all sorts of natural resources. A good land. And beginning tomorrow night, or the night after that, the people of Florida—and Texas—and the Pacific Northwest will begin again. The process of rebuilding and restoration will begin.
Here, this morning, we are engaged in the exercise of prayer. Gates of Prayer has a quote that seems the most relevant.
Prayer invites the Eternal Presence to suffuse or spirits and let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.
Abraham Joshua Heschel in Gates of Prayer
So when my appeal goes out about donating money to help that rebuilding process, consider giving generously. That is how we will rebuild. Florida. Texas. The Western Wildfires. The Mexico Earthquake. The flooding in Bangladesh, India, Nepal.
In the next few days, weeks, you will read all sorts of what I consider bad theology. These events are not some kind of Divine punishment for sins we can only imagine.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe that G-d causes these events as some kind of Divine retribution or wrath. I don’t believe, as Kirk Cameron suggested on social media, that G-d brings us these things to teach us humility and repentance. Nor compassion. I
What then, is the role of prayer?
Was anybody beside me up the other night at exactly the right time to see a shooting star? It was about 1:30 AM and I was surprised. Usually we can predict them and we know about the meteor shower in August and then again in November. I love to watch them. Sitting out on my deck or lying on a beach in northern Michigan on the shores of the big lake. But this one caught me by surprised. Wow, I said, this is awesome.
Maybe that’s why there is a blessing for a shooting star—or a meteor—or a comet. But while I was still out walking I remembered that the blessing is the same for a hurricane. I hurried home to make sure my memory was correct.
A hurricane and a shooting star? One is beautiful. The other is, well quite, frankly, destructive. Why would you bless the same thing on a shooting star and a hurricane? They are both awesome. A display of G-d’s power and might, of natural beauty. Both engendered fear in the ancients. Is there any good in a hurricane? The only thing I could come up with is in how people come together in the wake of the hurricane.
About the same time, someone wondered what the difference is between cancer and a hurricane. This UCC pastor Budd Friend Jones who was in McHenry but recently moved with his wife to Florida, a deep thinker, sounded very Israeli in his conclusion. “Either we survive, or we don’t. We have good neighbors here. We hope to be good neighbors. We deeply appreciate knowing of your concern.”
I have been struggling with the idea that we are lucky because Simon is now deemed cancer free. How is that possible? Why do we deserve this luck when so many don’t? Partly because we made some smart choices and he had good medical care. As many of you know, I pray for skilled and compassionate care teams. Doctors, nurses, aides, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, residents, internists, food service people and even the ones that sweep the floors. You need all of them! But I don’t think G-d gave Simon cancer. I don’t believe that G-d never gives us any more than we can bear. I do think we are lucky, fortunate that it would appear he will have the best possible outcome.
It doesn’t feel like we should celebrate. How can we celebrate when so many are struggling? How can I rejoice when so many are facing this hurricane—and that whole host of other tragedies? Are we really blessed?
I can’t pray to heal Simon and while others will not be. There have been some jokes, at least I hope they are jokes, that Mar-a-lago should be hit, or Rush Limburgh’s property. I cannot do that. I cannot wish for some to be spared and others not.
Then I remembered that there is a section of the Talmud that tells us that if we hear a siren we cannot pray that it should not be our house. It is already someone’s house. Someone is about to go through a tragedy—a fire or a medical emergency. It is already happening. We can’t stop it now. It seems relevant.
But I was thinking, really—sirens? In the Talmud? How can I even construct a search to find this passage? With the help of my classmates, I found it. One even responded from Florida! And it turns out to be even more appropriate than I thought.
Mishnah Berachot 9 that talks about this. It describes a tefilat shav, a prayer that is in vain. The Talmud examples are “May it be Your will that my wife give birth to a boy.” Already determined. Or “If he was coming on the way and heard the sound of screaming in the city and he said, ‘May it be your will that these are not my children,’ this is a prayer in vain.”
The end of the quote from Gates of Prayer is, “Those who rise from prayer better people, their prayers are answered.” May we rise as better people this morning.
Think none of this can happen here—that we are immune in Illinois? Perhaps to a direct hit of a hurricane. In 1920 there was a tornado that took out much of downtown Elgin, on a Sunday morning, Palm Sunday, just as people were leaving church. And it was only July when we had flooding, even in my neighborhood. At that point there was a lot of discussion about how we respond to natural disaster. It was really a continuation of a conversation that began even before Ferguson. My partner and friend across the street, Pastor Jeff Mikyska, has a foundation that distributes toys to children affected by these kinds of events. He attends every MARC meeting after a disaster where agencies help families begin to rebuild their lives. He cares passionately about these kinds of things and all the way back in January he went to his board and said that the synagogue might be at risk…and what were they going to do to protect us. There will be an exchange of keys and codes and our students—all of us, really, will be trained as part of tornado drills and fire drills to exit our building and go to theirs. I get teary eyed thinking about it. That’s loving your neighbor as yourself at the highest level. That’s what we exhibited when our president opened our building to the families next door when there was a fire.
I said at the beginning of this sermon, that this is a week of restoration. When this storm is over it will be time to rebuild and restore. This season is one of teshuvah, of repentance and return. Of reconciliation and restoration.
“Like water, teshuvah is both destructive and creative. It dissolves the person you were but simultaneously provides the moisture you need to grow anew. It erodes the hard edges of your willfulness but also refreshens your spirit. It can turn the tallest barriers of moral blindness into rubble while it also gently nourishes the hidden seeds of hope buried deep in your soul. Teshuvah, like water, has the power both to wash away past sin and to shower you with the blessing of a new future, if only you trust it and allow yourself to be carried along in its current.”
We are seeing the destructive power of water. May we again see its beauty and creativity. May this storm provide opportunities for safety, for security, for loving our neighbors and the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the most marginalized among us with a sukkat shalom, a shelter of Your peace. May we find ways to help and to restore, to renew and revitalize.
Love G-d, with all your mind, with all your strength, with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love the stranger, the widow, the orphan.
Three prayers for a hurricane:
From Rabbi Fred Guttman
God of the heavens: nature and all that You have created are truly awesome. Often, we; take these wonders for granted. Teach us to cherish all of your gifts.
Try as we might, we know that we cannot control the oceans, the mountains, the weather. We also firmly believe that ever since the time of Noah, You do not send floods, make the earth shake, or dispatch weather formations, such as hurricanes, as warnings or punishments.
So we ask, as this hurricane approaches land and approaching our brothers and sisters, that You shelter all who will be in its path. Watch over everyone, their loved ones, friends, and fellow people, many of whom are preparing to evacuate. Guard them as they prepare, perhaps to leave their homes again. Give them strength, courage, and resolve to ride out this storm; answer their prayers and ours that they be blessed with goodness and be spared from harm.
Baruch ata Adonai, Elohanu Melech Haolam she kocho u-gevurato maleh olam.
Blessed are You, Source of Life and Nature, whose awesome power and strength fill our world and inspire us to be strong in the face of all of life’s difficulties.
From Rabbi Naomi Levy:
From Alden Solovny: