Gerda Klein, the Holocaust survivor won an Emmy and an Oscar for a film about her experiences in the Shoah. She was once asked, “How did it feel for you as a holocaust survivor to be holding an Oscar in your hand?”
She replied, “This is what I was thinking. I remembered the long days on the death march, the bitter cold, the hunger, the loneliness, and the fear. I stood with a rusty bowl in my hands praying that when I got to the end of the line there would be enough food left in the kettle for me. And if by some miracle the ladle went deeper and brought forth a potato, then I was a winner.
“I don’t want our children and grandchildren to live in a world where a potato is more valuable than an Oscar; but I don’t want them to be in a world where an Oscar is so important that one forgets that so many still don’t have a potato.”
I remembered Gerda as we watched in horror as Katrina’s 150 mile an hour winds ripped the soul out of New Orleans, devastated the entire gulf coast, broke through the levees and washed away the hopes and dreams of over a million men, women and children suddenly left homeless and adrift in the ravaged waters of despair.
There has not been such a storm as Katrina in all of American history and the cost of the damage is incalculable. How do you tally up the value of a life? The value of a loved-one lost? Of home and job and every possession you own on earth disappearing before your eyes? The price of a child’s trauma and terror at witnessing the violent destruction of his home, or the crumbling despair of her parent’s loss of dignity spending days trapped without sanitation or clothes or even water in the Superdome nightmare?
What price do we put on the terrors of the night that will haunt millions of lives, our own included for a very, very long time to come? Never in all the history of this country has there been a storm as powerful and as destructive as this one. Never.
We watched day after day at the sadness, the despair, the destruction, the loss and the vision of Americans in our own land looking like third-world refugees.
Those haunting images: families huddled together with only the clothes on their backs; a lone woman pushing a shopping cart through the flooded streets searching for a way out; lines of evacuees slowly winding over bridges and empty highways; couples clinging to each other as they waited in desperation for someone to come and rescue them, rescue workers moving door to door, flooded house to flooded house searching for bodies or the last vestiges of humanity still clinging to their own homes.
And the water. All that water everywhere. That first picture on the front page of the LA Times – I thought it was a lake until I realized that all those little floating squares of color, were really roofs of houses that were totally submerged. 20 feet – 30 feet – impossible and horrific to imagine.
And then before we could even catch our collective breath – as if trapped in a twisted, nightmare Tim Burton version of “Groundhog Day” – Hurricane Rita pummeled East Texas and the Louisiana coast. It triggered floods and demolished buildings. It was responsible for creating over 3 million evacuees, knocked out power for over 1 million users, sparked fires across the hurricane zone and swamped Louisiana shoreline towns.
In any other year it might have seemed devastating – but the new storm came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so Rita elicited a sigh of relief that our worst fears weren’t realized after all.
But Katrina and Rita, like this week’s South East Asian earthquake provided us all a profound lesson in humility. A lesson about our own impotence and the reality of what it means to live as part of nature and not apart from it. You’d think we would have learned it already from the terror and trauma of the tsunami’s devastation of the Indian Ocean last year. But as powerful and as destructive, and as overwhelming as that was, somehow it is always different when it’s here; when it’s us.
Without question nature hammered home to us our arrogance and misplaced pride in just how powerful we think we are. We look at all we create – our tall towers and gleaming cities, our fabulous palaces of opulence and architectural brilliance – and in a moment one storm, one flood, one earthquake takes it all away.
As the Yiddish proverb says, “Human beings plan and God laughs.”
But no one was laughing this time. Katrina and Rita taught us the bridges we build can crack, the skyscrapers we build can crumble, the self-image we have can be crushed – we live at the mercy of forces beyond our control.
There is nothing we can do to keep the hurricanes of life away and when nature takes aim at us, all we can do is run, or drive, or fly as fast as we can to get out of its way.
But then where can we go? Thousands of years ago the psalmist wrote, “When I look to the heavens, You are there. If I flee across the sea, You are there. If I climb the highest mountain, You are there.”
We can leave the South to avoid hurricanes. And then leave the Midwest to avoid tornados. And then leave California to avoid earthquakes. And then go where?
Wherever we are we are vulnerable. We all stand naked in the face of the storms of life. And that is why every single one of us at sometime in the past month has said or thought these words – perhaps many times: “There but for the grace of God go I.” “There but for the grace of God…”
How could you not feel a profound, life-affirming almost overwhelming sense of gratitude at the blessings of your life, every time you watched the news or opened the paper or went on line?
Katrina & Rita reminded us once again about the most important lessons of life: That just to wake up is a blessing. To have a home or even a room to sleep in with running water and plumbing that works and a blanket and a bed is a blessing. To have food to eat and water to drink – water to drink is a blessing.
To have loved ones to hold and kiss who are safe and secure is a blessing. To have friends and community and even strangers who become a caring community that will stand up and help in our time of need is an amazing blessing. And of course it reminded us of our need to prepare at home for our own disaster as well.
There were those in our own congregation whose families, friends, loved ones were in the devastation of Katrina – who lost their homes, whose lives were disrupted, or went to Tulane and in a few days time with everything left behind had to simply plop down in another college in another state and start studying as if nothing happened. The stories are legion and you all know them as well as I.
But I am a rabbi. Your rabbi. And I have been given the privilege of intimate access to so many of your lives. And so I know that even without the hurricane called Katrina, there are many, many kinds of storms and all kinds of hurricanes that you, too have endured this year.
There are those here tonight who came to services last year feeling very prosperous and very well off financially. And then something happened – a surprise in the market, a downturn in an industry, an investment that backfired, something went wrong – and the fortune is lost. And you are sitting here right now wondering, “How will I ever be able to recover from the financial hurricane that overwhelmed me this year? How can I face my family, my friends, my self?”
There are those sitting here tonight who were healthy last year and came to services feeling confident and strong. And then the x ray came back positive. The doctor’s face turned grim. And tonight you sit here in a vastly different mood – the hurricane of illness and fear has come upon you full force, and it saps your strength and drains your spirit. And you wonder, “How will I survive this hurricane of illness that has overwhelmed me?”
There are those sitting here tonight who were happily married last year and came to services with your loved one by your side. And then the relationship faltered and crumbled. The marriage which seemed so firm and solid to those on the outside, cracked from within and fell apart. And you suffer in pain and loss and despair and loneliness. And you wonder, “How will I ever be able to recover from the emotional hurricane which has overwhelmed me this year?”
And there are those sitting here tonight who have lost a loved one in the past year. You will never be quite the same again. Part of you will be wounded and scarred by the loss for the rest of your life. You may remarry, you will rebuild your life but nevertheless you will carry your loss and love in your heart forever. And you wonder, “How will I ever be able to recover from the hurricane of grief that has overwhelmed me this year?”
And yet we do. We do overcome the grief, we do overcome the losses, we do overcome the divorce, the death, the financial setbacks, the physical challenges. Time and again. With remarkable, indeed with amazing resilience. And I want to share with you how we overcome the storms of life. For that is where we find God in the midst of despair and sorrow.
The most remarkable stories from the Katrina disaster were not found in the devastation and loss, they were found in the hundreds and thousands and millions of individual stories of rescue, of giving, of Tzedakah, and of human kindness. People of all classes and of all races reached out to help those who were the victims of the hurricane.
You all know the stories, because you all are the stories. Your kids sold lemonade and raised hundreds and even thousands of dollars on their own to help the victims. You brought blankets, sheets, towels, clothing, toiletries and anything that was needed to give to evacuees who showed up in LA or were housed in shelters throughout the country.
Strangers got into their cars and into their SUVS and drove or flew hundreds of miles to help people whom they did not even know. One of our members, Rick Siegel who is a therapist flew down immediately and spent a week in the largest evacuation center of New Orleans counseling 60-70 people every day. I’m going to share with you some of his stories this afternoon.
And you gave money. Lots and lots of money in unprecedented numbers for hurricane relief. Something like $600 million dollars was given in the first 10 days after the hurricane – more than at any time for any disaster in history - dwarfing the amount raised in the days following 9/11 or the Indian Ocean tsunami.
People, who were themselves of limited means, donated all that they could afford and sometimes more than they could afford to the Red Cross, to United Jewish Federation, to Mazon, to the Salvation Army, to anyone and everyone who was providing sustenance and support. And that’s what I meant on Rosh Hashana about your checkbook so powerfully reflecting your values.
People posted messages on the internet, “If you know anyone who needs housing, we have a spare bedroom and we will be happy to take a family in for as long as they need to stay.”
Thousands of people did that. People from all over the United States did that. In fact, 90,000 beds in private homes were offered for the homeless within days on www.hurricanehousing.org.
How do you explain that response? How do you explain that hundreds, thousands of people reached out and opened their pockets and opened their hearts and opened their homes to people whom they had never met, simply because they were the victims of a hurricane?
It’s “There but for the grace of God go I,” and more. It’s more than merely “empathy.” It’s a fundamental realization that they are us. Us in the Midwest when the tornadoes strike. And us in Los Angeles when the “big one” strikes.
And that is the real answer. That is the real lesson of this unprecedented disaster. There is no “us” and “them”, there is only “us” – all of us, all over the world, all the time.
And that is the most profound lesson of Judaism and of every other religion on earth as well. That’s what the Shema means when it says, “God is one.” That’s why the Torah teaches that we are made in God’s image, so we will know that just as God is one, we are one as well. To be religious, to be spiritual is to grasp to the core of your being what the ancient Prophet Amos tried to teach us thousands of years ago by saying, “Have we not one Father? Has not one God created us all? So why do we deal treacherously brother against brother?”
I believe that the reason people responded as they did when Katrina struck, was that in that moment they realized that we are just one family after all. And for me, that is exactly how God works in the world.
I say it often: Your hands are God’s hands. Your arms are God’s arms. Your eyes are how God sees. Your ears are how God hears. Your heart is the heart of God as well.
God was and is found in the acts of every person who reached out and did what he or she could do to rescue and give help and give hope to those who were overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina.
And from them and from each of you we ultimately learn what we have been trying to teach about community for so long. For in community you are never completely alone. There are always friends, synagogue members, and even strangers who will come to our aid if they only know that we are in need and we are willing to ask.
As we see the miracles that can happen when people and nations join their hands and hearts together, we realize that we can do anything, accomplish anything, and help anyone in need if we want to badly enough. For the only barrier to solving any social problem is enough will of the people to solve it.
As Rachel mentioned last night, if we attacked the problem of the 90,000 people who are homeless everyday in Los Angeles County, mostly women and children, with the same passion, commitment and compassion that Katrina inspired, we could probably solve the homeless problem in our community in a few months.
On Rosh Hashanah we read the biblical drama of Abraham bringing his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice to God. In that chilling story, he binds his son, places him on the altar and raises the slaughtering knife over his head when an angel of God calls out to stop him saying that God does not desire that we sacrifice our loved ones, our children on any altar. And Isaac’s life is rescued by that angel.
The next time a hurricane of some kind strikes in your life, remember that angels are all around us eager and willing to help. Just look around this sanctuary – in front of you, and next to you, and you will see who the angels really are.
No, I have a better idea. Hold you hand up in front of your face (like this) – now imagine that your hand is a spiritual mirror. And when you gaze into that mirror you see an angel of God. For you are God’s angels every day. Every time you extend a helping hand to another. Every time you give comfort to someone in need. Every time you open your heart, or your resources, or your home to embrace another soul who suffers from their own hurricanes of life – you are God’s angel indeed.
May the year ahead bring you safety and wellbeing. May you be spared from having to endure personal hurricanes and storms in the year ahead. May you be spared those hurricanes whether of nature or finance, illness or divorce or death.
But if come they must, may we have the support of friends and family, of synagogue and community to stay with us and help us and be our angels when the hurricanes of our lives threaten to overwhelm us.
For when that happens, then the best in the human spirit emerges and unlike our patriarch Jacob who said, yesh Adonai bemakom hazeh veanokhi lo yadati – “God is in this place, and I just didn’t know it.” We will look into each other’s eyes and know that we are seeing the face of God.