The Imperfect Storm

He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed.
— Psalms 107:29

This week our learning honors Rivkah Goli, who passed away this week. She was a Jew by choice from the Ivory Coast and blessed many of our tables, always sending a greeting before and after Shabbat to those she loved. May her memory be for a blessing.

The pictures on the news are eerily familiar. Flood waters rising. People being evacuated. Pets moved from rooftops. We brace ourselves as a nation for another massive clean-up of a water-logged city, recognizing that some of the damage will never be fixed. Some broken hearts will never be healed. Those of us who do not live in Texas are cautioned to think of the words of the Buddha: “What is the appropriate behavior for a man or a woman in the midst of this world, where each person is clinging to his piece of debris? What's the proper salutation between people as they pass each other in this flood?” It’s a humble reminder that while we are not there, we are all holding on to shards of hope, aware of our existential smallness in facing the power and indifference of nature.

Water imagery fills the Hebrew Bible from its very first chapter. I invite you to look at a verse you may have seen dozens of times with new eyes: “Then God said: ‘Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear,’ and it was so. God called the dry land earth and the gathering of the water He called seas. And God saw that it was good,” (Genesis 1:9-10). Perhaps what was good was not the creation of water and dry land but the separation of the two. God blessed the two separate geographic formations, each to serve its own unique purpose. It is the blurring of the boundary line where havoc begins. It is that very blurring that happened six chapters later when floods took over the land, and the separation no longer existed.

If there’s any doubt about the sea’s prominence, we are reminded of this act of creation many times in Psalms: “The sea is His, for it was He who made it. And his hands formed the dry land” (95:5). By seeing a power behind nature, indifference turns to the harnessing of nature to bring humans to awe and fear: “Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them?” Psalm 146:6 asks, “who keeps faith forever?” This reverence is not because of the perfect storm but because of its very imperfect consequences: “Do you not tremble in my presence?” remarks Jeremiah, “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree so it cannot be crossed over. Though the waves toss, yet they cannot prevail; though they roar, yet they cannot cross over it” (5:22). As a people, there are seas we have crossed over and those that are impossible to cross.

Job enhances the mystery of the sea by bluntly showing the limitations of human mastery. “Have you entered the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” (38:16). We stand in front of the waves seeing nothing of what happens beneath them and only a fraction of the total horizon. Because of these limitations, it’s not hard to understand the theological wrestling people do in the wake of natural disasters. For some, water is an awesome and majestic aspect of nature. For others, it has robbed them of their homes, their photo albums, their neighbors. And while it’s true that every natural disaster brings a flood of altruism, it is also true that most of us will turn away from the photos and the broadcasts and continue our lives as if this never happened.

I know that not all natural disasters happen right before our Days of Awe, but some years the line of prayer “who by fire and who by water?” seems all too resonant. I looked in my own archives for writing after Katrina and found an essay called “A Yom Kippur Cry for Katrina.” There I composed a few confessional prayers of my own that seem, sadly, all too relevant today:

Forgive us for the sin of indifference.

Forgive us for turning our eyes away from human suffering.

Forgive us for living comfortably in our own homes and not making homes for the displaced.

Forgive us for not sharing our daily bread with those who do not have bread to share.

Forgive us for not hearing the cry of the shofar.

Shabbat Shalom