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Hurricane Sandy a reminder of our vulnerability and humbleness before God

Shmuel Herzfeld is a rabbi at Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in D.C. and a contributor to The Washington Post’s local faith leader network .

As many people in the Northeast still struggle with the enormous devastation of Hurricane Sandy, religious people of all faiths are seeking the proper spiritual response to this tremendous storm.

Judaism teaches that there are at least two proper religious responses to Hurricane Sandy and one improper response.

What is the improper response?

We are not supposed to use this natural disaster as a way of demonstrating that we alone have divined the message of the Supreme Being.  The storm that we witnessed should humble us all.  Too often people think that they know God’s intentions.  Thus, they will blame the storm on a specific act or on a specific political decision.  In the aftermath of the storm, I am sorry to say I heard such nonsense being spouted.    

Such an approach is worse than being merely wrong; it is a desecration of God’s name and it diminishes our understanding of him.

Judaism believes that God’s ways are not random; they are intentional.  Yet even though they are intentional, we have no way of knowing the mystery of God’s plan.

So what is the proper response?

The first proper response is that in the face of a powerful and overwhelming natural disaster, one should recite a blessing to God.

The Code of Jewish law known as the ShulchanAruch records the following law (227):  “For winds that blow fiercely one should recite the blessing, ‘Blessed are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, Author of creation,’ or if one wants, one may instead recite the blessing, Blessed are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, whose power and might fill the world.’”

Why are we blessing God when his world just created so much havoc and devastation in our lives?

There are a few reasons why we recite a blessing to God even in this situation.

First, we bless God because we are expressing awe in front of God’s handiwork.  We are acknowledging that the world is powerful and awesome.  Even if a storm wrecks our cities and our homes, we must recognize the strength of God.

Second, our tradition teaches us that we must be spiritually transformed by the natural events of the world.  So we recite a blessing in order to help us use the event of a hurricane as a way to refocus us and humble us in front of our creator.  All of us should be asking ourselves this week: Why are we here on this earth?  What are we meant to accomplish?  How can we better help our community and society?

Third — and most important of all — by blessing God and invoking the fact that he is the author of creation, we are actively reminding ourselves that all of us on this Earth are children of God.  We are all in this together and we all have a responsibility to care for others.  Moments of crisis are very scary moments, but there is also a beauty to them in that they often bring to the surface the greatest qualities in our fellow human beings.  In moments of crisis we strive to rise up and we are supposed to challenge ourselves to reach beyond our normal daily routine and seek ways to help others.  For example, if normally, we merely smile at our neighbors, when a crisis comes we are supposed to do more than just smile at a neighbor, we are supposed to make sure that they are fine and if not, help them out.

This is what we saw in New York and New Jersey in the days following Hurricane Sandy.  We saw beautiful stories of people going out of their way to help each other out and protect the most vulnerable.

This leads to a second religious response to Hurricane Sandy.  If Hurricane Sandy can inflict so much damage on what is perhaps the greatest and most powerful city in the world, it should awaken us to the fact that we are all vulnerable.  It is not just New Orleans or Haiti or Cuba that is vulnerable: New York City — the city that never sleeps — is also entirely vulnerable to the waves of God.

And when we realize our vulnerability, the religious response is to take refuge in the arms of God. 

The waves of the sea are powerful, but we draw support and strength from God who is even more powerful.  In these scary times of trouble and unrest, we run into his embrace and hug him like a child hugs her father and mother.  As Psalm 93 states: “Mightier than the noise of many waters, than the mighty waves of the sea is the Lord on high.”  Or as our liturgy declares, “He gathers in the ocean’s waters, smashing ocean waves … they are sufficient to fill the world, but he suppresses powerfully so they withdraw.”  (Liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, Day 2.)

We draw strength from the enormous strength and power of God and the recognition that we are all his children.

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