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First Person

Natural Disasters

by | Sep 8, 2005

I was in the United States when the disaster of Hurricane
Katrina struck New Orleans and its southeast Gulf Coast. It seems that
natural disasters are regular events in the lives of millions of human
beings. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and hurricanes are all
regular visitors, if not permanent residents on our planet. The
overwhelming forces of nature make mockery of humankind’s efforts at
taming them. There is much public and political opinion afoot in the
United States not to rebuild the city of New Orleans in its present
location because of its vulnerability to flooding. In effect, this
opinion proposes a twenty-first century surrender to nature and its
wrathful and destructive unpredictability. Its admission of defeat is a
humbling reminder of how puny humans are in relation to natural
disasters. All of our great technological achievements and creations,
gifted and wondrous as they are, still cannot overcome the forces of
nature implanted by our Creator in our world. There is little room for
human pride and hubris in the face of the devastation brought upon us by
such a natural disaster as Hurricane Katrina. We stand in mute shock at
witnessing the forces of nature beyond our control or even our imagination.

When I was a rabbi in Miami Beach in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s my
family and I experienced three direct hits from hurricanes. Those
hurricanes invariably occurred during the month of Elul, the month of
introspection and preparation for the High Holy Days and the Days of
Judgment. It was and still is customary in the world of the yeshivot to,
during that part of the year, deliver mussar schmuessen – lectures on
morality, ethics, ritual observance and the importance of serving God in
our lives. These talks are powerful in content and delivery and are a
wonderful tool in helping one enter into the true solemnity of spirit
that mark the High Holy Days. But after my congregation’s experiences
with the hurricanes, I felt that any words that I might have said or
lectures that I might have delivered would have been hollow and
unnecessary. A hurricane is a pretty impressive and awesome mussar
schmuess all by itself. No human being’s words of wisdom can improve
upon it. If one is not sufficiently humbled by the power of a
hurricane’s winds, rains and tides then the most inspiring of speeches
will also avail nothing in conquering the unwarranted arrogance and
haughtiness that infects many people.

The main message of Elul and of the High Holy Days is one of humility.
The finite is limited and insignificant before the Infinite. The
Psalmist states: “What is man that You should care to know him, human
beings that You should deem them to be important?” Natural disasters
remind us of this fact of mortality, of human failings and weaknesses.
But it is only through humility that one can find true spirituality and
a connection to God. God is not necessarily in the earthquake and the
hurricane itself. God is found in the still small voice of humility and
helplessness that comes after the awesome display of His nature’s might
and fury. Only when hubris and haughtiness are conquered within a
person’s soul, mind, behavior and outlook, is there then room for the
Godly spirit to enter that person’s inner self. And in one of the
strange but true paradoxes of human nature only the humble can achieve
true and lasting spiritual greatness.

Why does God employ natural disasters to inform us of the importance of
humility? Why does He allow for such great human suffering for so many
seemingly blameless people? I certainly do not know how to answer or
even deal with these troubling questions. Man cannot understand or
fathom God’s methods for dealing with this world. However, because we
cannot satisfactorily explain something does not allow us to ignore its
obvious lessons. The still, small voice is preceded by hurricanes,
volcanoes and earthquakes. If we leave immediately after the display of
noise and power and do not stay around to hear the small voice that can
emanate within us from witnessing and experiencing such disasters, then
it is truly only a random disaster that strikes us. However, if it
allows moments of introspection and leads us to an understanding of the
necessity of humility and kindness in our lives, then the natural
disaster, unwanted and inexplicable as it is, may have value for each of
us, especially in this month of Elul.

Reprinted with permission from