November 2, 2012
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
While hurricane Sandy was pounding most of the East Coast of the United States, the weather here in Tucson has been simply beautiful: cool, crisp early mornings giving way to warm, sunny, balmy, lovely days. There is something surreal about enjoying gorgeous fall weather while watching photos of flooding, destruction, and havoc wrought by a natural disaster on the other side of the country. It creates a true cognitive dissonance. God is giving us good conditions, and New Jersey, New York and much of East Coast are receiving really bad conditions.
This is both disturbing and weirdly comforting: it is impossible to view the photos of the huge ocean waves and massive flooding, including the New York subway system, and not feel some shock and distress. Over 70 people dead, millions without power, people suddenly homeless, widespread damage and destruction. But in a very basic way it is a relief to be here in a region that looks and feels even better than normal, pleasant and peaceful... It is apparently possible to feel both relieved and guilty at the same time—relieved that this time it's not us, and guilty for feeling relief. Frankly, that's probably a primary Jewish emotional condition, relief and guilt mingled... And we have it now over this hurricane.
The photographs of the devastation throughout the New Jersey and New York areas are somewhat amazing. Atlantic City literally under layers of sand; cars floating in Greenwich Village; homes annihilated on Coney Island. And many more.
But amidst the devastation there are many heartwarming stories. Although New Yorkers have a well-deserved reputation for superficial brusqueness, they also rise to the occasion when a crisis occurs as few others do. There are many reports of people opening their homes to newly homeless strangers, bringing supplies and emergency assistance wherever and whenever needed. Sometimes these efforts even cross the boundary lines of Jewish denominationalism.
My friend and teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, the Chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the ordaining institution for Reform Judaism in North America, writes from New York:
"As I write these words, electrical power has not returned to lower Manhattan south of 36th Street. Consequently, the College-Institute, located on West Fourth Street, remains closed today and tomorrow, just as it has all week. Presuming that the electricity has returned by the week-end, our building will be reopen and classes in New York will resume on Monday.
"Should electrical power not be restored, I am moved to report that Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary spontaneously reached out to me and he and his staff have extended themselves to the College-Institute. They have graciously offered to host our faculty and students so that classes can be held next week on the JTS campus should power not be restored downtown by Monday. Regardless of what will occur during the next three days, I am grateful to Chancellor Eisen and the Seminary for this meaningful act of hesed. It testifies to the reality of the value of Jewish communal unity, "Kol yisrael areivin zeh la-zeh – all Israel is responsible for one another." In the spirit of hakarat ha-tov, the recognition of the good, I would express my gratitude to Chancellor Eisen and all his staff for this generous and spontaneous offer of hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests.
"Our history teaches us that there is an ineffable spark to the human spirit that allows us to respond to catastrophe with hope and a belief in the future. May these sparks of optimism and the good that are taking place even in the face of this horrific disaster light up these difficult days and give us all the strength to move forward as together we rebuild and repair our world."
Beautiful words for this calamitous time. It will take some time for the fuel shortages to be worked out, for power to be restored everywhere and the massive cleanup to be accomplished. The will get it done eventually, of course, because that's what we do, as a people. And any donations you can make, to the Red Cross or to the URJ Relief Fund as noted in your Shabbat leaflet, will help that happen sooner and more completely. And you can give blood here, which will help the national shortage of blood supplies that will be caused by the hurricane.
May God provide strength and skill to all who are working to alleviate suffering and repair the damage of Hurricane Sandy.
Natural disasters have a way of catalyzing change, but usually it is of very short duration. I hope that the sheer enormity of this event will help many people understand what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg highlighted this week: huge mega-storms like this are most likely the result of the climate change we have been seeing for quite a while now, at least those who are willing to see it. There is now a great deal of scientific information that the huge size of this storm is related to the overall phenomenon of global warming and the climate change that is a consequence of that. Lest you believe that this is a liberal viewpoint unsubstantiated by scientific evidence, you should know that even insurance companies, among the most careful and conservative of all large corporations, are now endorsing that view of this Hurricane Sandy, and are predicting more like it in the future without a modification of the global warming phenomenon... and North America is squarely in the path of this trend. General Re, a huge international insurance giant, noted that the global warming was a factor in this storm and in its estimates of future risks. It's funny how that works: when an event like Hurricane Sandy wipes out a fourth of your annual profits, as it may for the entire insurance industry, you begin to pay attention.
The storm surge at The Battery in Lower Manhattan was the highest ever recorded at that location. It surpassed even the most pessimistic forecasts, with the maximum water level reaching nearly 14 feet above the average of the daily lowest low tide of the month, including a storm surge component of well over 9 feet. That broke the official record set in 1960 during Hurricane Donna, as well as a record set during a hurricane in 1821; earlier records don't really exist. To put it simply, the water was over 9 feet higher than the high tide line, roughly a person and a half above flood level...
Many scientists think these kind of huge storm events may be related to the loss of Arctic sea ice, which is one of the most visible consequences of man-made global warming. The 2012 sea ice melt season, which ended one month ago, was extreme, with sea ice extent, volume, and other measures all hitting record lows. The loss of sea ice opens large expanses of open water, which then absorbs more of the incoming solar energy and adds heat and moisture to the atmosphere, thereby helping to alter weather patterns and increase the duration and size of storms.
And the higher sea level worldwide because of the polar ice melting means that storm flooding in coastal areas becomes more extreme.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that we need to continue to explore ways to lower our own carbon footprints and to work to control the greenhouse gasses that are driving this destructive effect on our planet, and this week on our own country. A central Jewish commandment is "bal tashchit" do not destroy the earth we have been given ... when the earth begins to create events that seem, well, Biblical in their destructive potential, we need to take note and modify our behavior.
This is more than just the self-serving comments of the rabbi of a congregation that has gone solar in the past six months. We may be justly proud of that effort; but there is so much more to do. This storm, limited though the damage may ultimately prove to be, is a warning call that Noah would have heard and understood, and which we, as Jews, need to pay attention to.
It is particularly important that our mild guilt on this issue not be considered a political football. Our ability to address the ecological challenges of our world is far too important for us to make it a matter of partisanship. Everyone needs to understand that we all must work to find solutions, and to implement those solutions, to reduce the exposure we all face when we damage the only planet we have to live on.
This week's parshah of Vayera is famous for many things, not least of them the prediction of the birth of Isaac and the binding of that favorite son of Abraham on the altar in the Akeidah. But perhaps of greatest importance is the message that we learn from Abraham's insistence on protesting for justice in the incident of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a signal indication that we, as Jews, have a moral responsibility to speak up when we know that injustice is being promoted, or even made possible. How much more is that true when the potential destruction of our own environment is being countenanced?
It is time for us all to think seriously about how we can personally work to protect our planet. We must assist in the clean-up and try to alleviate the suffering back East. But we must also make a practical commitment to improving our planet, to reducing our own impact on the environment, to changing the way we live so that we can be proud of our own stewardship of the earth that God has given us. It is not enough to make sweeping pronouncements about the responsibility others—government, large industries, international organizations—have to save our world. It is time for each of us to look at our own actions and how their impact on our environment can be improved.
It is time to ask what you, personally have done to actively repair the world this year—and even this week. And to find new ways to do so next week, too!
May we all find ways to help mitigate and limit such events in the future. And may we all find ways to respect and honor the beautiful home that God has given us.