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Terror of the Tsunami

January 08, 2005

Whenever we open the pages of a prayerbook or turn to text of the Torah, the traditional prayers and the Biblical narratives are always the same. The story lines never change. Heroes and heroines, patriarchs and matriarchs, rebels and dysfunctional siblings, dreamers and visionaries, cynics and doubters, all play their roles and nothing ever changes. Jacob and Esau quarrel incessantly until, twenty years after their separation, they are finally reunited. Pharaoh continues to resist Moses’ entreaties, never understanding that there is a power higher than him until it is too late. Moses will always drop the first set of the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Golden Calf will continue to sparkle in the sun and then smolder in the sand. Our People will wander in the wilderness for forty years.

The stories never change, but we do. We arrive at any given parasha/the weekly Torah reading and we are subtly or dramatically different from who we were, and perhaps where we were – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – the year before. The text never changes. We do. Words that may not have spoken to us before suddenly seem more eloquent, persuasive or meaningful.

Vah’yih’dabare Moshe kane ehl bnai Yisrael v’lo shahm’oo ehl Moshe mih’kotzer ruach. Before I tell you what those words mean, you need to know something about the preamble to them. The dominant mood of Sheymote/The Book of Exodus is despair. The people suffered terribly from the rigors of slavery: their lives were made “bitter with harsh labor at mortar and bricks” {Exodus 1:14} and their hearts were broken by Pharaoh’s edict that when baby boys were born they were to be killed. They were not aware of Moses’ transformation from a prince of the palace to a pathfinder who would lead them to freedom. They did not know about his experience at the bush that burned but was not consumed, and from whose midst an angel of God spoke to him. They knew nothing about the intimacy with which God introduced Itself to Moses, or God’s promise that they would be delivered from “the misery of Egypt” {3:17}. But they did know that Moses and Aaron demanded of Pharaoh sha’lach eht ah’mee/”Let my people go!” {5:1} and that Pharaoh’s answer was to order “heavier work be laid upon [them]” {5:9}.

So when Moses told them about God’s promise – “I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage…I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” {6:6,8} – lo shahm’oo ehl Moshe mih’kotzer ruach/”they would not believe Moses because of kotzer ruach/because of diminished spirit” {6:9}.

This past week, our spirits – kotzer ruach – have been diminished. The magnitude of the horror, the swath of destruction, and the terrible loss of life triggered by a powerful 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Indonesia on December 26th, resulting in a series of tsunamis that devastated areas of South Asia from Thailand to India, make the stories we have read, the footage we have seen, and the numbers we have heard – now over 150,000 dead; 5 million homeless; 2 million in desperate need of food; tens of thousands at high risk of contracting deadly diseases – almost impossible to get our arms around.

Children were the most vulnerable, but the sea was indiscriminate in its death knell. People of disparate faiths and races, ages and nationalities succumbed to the sheer power and force of its liquid death. People in trains were crushed to death by the surging force of unrelenting water – and almost without exception, survivors speak not of ‘waves’ but of 15 foot high “walls of water” that roared into their lives, brutal and savage in power, a modern-day plague that was filmed and photographed so that we, in the safety of our homes, can see the rising horror of it all. People died in rooms and on roofs; on streets that disappeared under a cataclysmic explosion of water; died where they sought refuge; were swept out to sea; were flung inland; and were buried under mud and concrete, gasping for air as water filled their lungs.

Yet as indiscriminate as was the claim of death, so too was the gift of life. A 15 month old was swept up in the raging waters, disappeared from sight, and was later found floating on a mattress…wet, cold and safe. A couple heard the gathering sounds of fury descending upon their hotel and believed it to be an attack by terrorists. The walls of their room suddenly disappeared in an explosion of water. They held hands and were swept underwater through the hotel and, still submerged, shot across a street through another hotel, and then out to sea where they were picked up by a boat that was miraculously still afloat.

Lo shahm’oo ehl Moshe mih’kotzer ruach/”They would not believe Moses because of diminished spirit” {6:9}. Our spirits have been diminished by the sight of what we have seen. Kotzer ruach also means “shortness of breath.” When I first heard about what happened, I was stunned into a state bordering on disbelief. The number of people who died was so staggering that I thought it to be a typographical error that was reported as fact. Then the awful truth dawned. Upon first seeing the massive waves on CNN video – malevolent in their size and power – kotzer ruach, my breath was taken away. The footage kept rolling, the narrator’s voice informed us about what happened, but I was frozen in time. For me, everything stopped. I wanted to ‘will’ the video tape backward, to return the sea to its appropriate place, and children, women and men back to their carefree lives, joys and tasks. But I can no easier alter time than God would change the natural laws of the universe, even the cause and effect of massive earthquakes and awesome, destructive waves. These too are the ways of the world, in all its wonder and complexity, gifts and grief.

This too is the way of the world: in the immediate aftermath of such global tragedy, differences are blurred, as Hindu and Muslim reach out to help one another. Many nations of the world are united in their efforts to heal pain dispensed in such great measure, yet still blind to the pain they mete out daily through force of arms and belligerent spirit. Arab newspapers trumpet the charge that the cause of the tsunami was an underground nuclear test by combined American and Israeli scientists. It is at times like this that I am convinced that the moral state of humanity can be measured by the way Jews are treated. Surely God must weep at times at our folly.

On the very last page of this week’s edition of The New Yorker magazine {January 10th, 2005}, centered and framed by white borders, is a poem entitled ‘Now, When The Waters Are Pressing Mightily’ by the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

“Now, when the waters are pressing mightily

on the walls of the dams,

now, when the white storks, returning,

are transformed in the middle of the firmament

into fleets of jet planes,

we will feel again how strong are the ribs

and how vigorous is the warm air in the lungs

and how much daring is needed to love on the exposed plain,

when the great dangers are arched above,

and how much love is required

to fill all the empty vessels

and the watches that stopped telling time,

and how much breath,

a whirlwind of breath,

to sing the small song of spring.”

Now, in the midst of our stunned silence and sorrow, we turn to help those who struggle to live in places where watches stopped telling time. We strive “to sing the small song of spring” and to bring sustenance and hope to those who, like us, are also created in the Divine image {Leviticus 19:18}.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin