I once heard a rabbi speaking about the need to maintain flexibility in important relationships, especially between husbands and wives. "You need to be like astronauts," he told us, smiling, "and be able to make mid-course corrections." During one Apollo mission to the moon, for example, various problems came up, and the astronauts, working with mission control back on Earth, had to alter their trajectory. Their spacecraft still headed towards the moon, but the path it took was a different one. While our goals as married couples remain the same, explained the rabbi, the strategies and tools for achieving those goals must change as we do.
My wife and I have had time to reflect upon the necessity of flexibility since we fled with our two children and a suitcase from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated our house, our shul, and our Jewish community in New Orleans. Of course, we escaped with our lives, a blessing that many of our fellow residents did not have. But our relationships have had to endure the strain of losing all that was familiar, and our connections to material things had to be re-examined in light of catastrophic flooding. We remain committed to serving God, but the ways that we can do so have changed.
Sukkot And The Impermanence Of Material Things
I did not realize that in a moment, all "important" material goods can be eliminated.
We believed that we had firmly established our lives in New Orleans. We had rented a beautiful house with plenty of space for visitors, Shabbos guests, and family. We even hosted two young Torah scholars, Mordy and Yaakov, who came via the SEED program so they could teach to us and to our fellow Jews in the neighborhood. I had started a new job at Tulane University, and we had enrolled our oldest son in nearby Torah Academy, a Jewish school known for its small classes and warm instruction.
But the Creator had other plans for us and the others impacted by the massive storm and the flooding which followed.
So often we imagine that through our own hard work we have created permanent structures, whether in our careers, our relationships with family and friends, or volunteer work with our community, that cannot be undone. I did not sufficiently realize that in a moment, all of the material goods that we imagine to be so important can be eliminated.
We have heard only second-hand rumors about the condition of our house, but a neighbor with access to email reported that when the waters entered her home, they blew the door off the hinges and filled the entire house within a few minutes. No lock, no door, no years of work – nothing could keep back these forces. It takes a disaster to show us how frail our lives and our belongings are, and how little control we actually have over so many aspects of our existence.
The upcoming festival of Sukkot – the Festival of Booths – emphasizes this very point. For eight days we remove ourselves from our "stable" housing, our comfortable and plush beds, and our leaf-free living rooms to live literally under the stars in a temporary hut known in Hebrew as a sukkah. We are obligated to study, eat, and even sleep in the sukkah – barring heavy rain or untenable conditions.
The time spent outside reinforces our belief that acquiring material goods is never our goal as Jews; instead, connection to the Creator and his will should be our target, with our material goods only as ways of serving God. We meet God in a place where materialism cannot intervene between ourselves and our Maker. When we're outside, we understand that we cannot control the winds, the leaves which drop into our soups, or the music from nearby houses which disturbs house.
We cannot ward off disease, suffering, loss and death. We can only control how we respond to these tests.
The one thing that we do control is our attitude, our response to the situations we encounter. I was privileged to hear this message from Rabbi Weinberger of Congregation Aish Kodesh when he spoke to his congregation on a recent Shabbos. He read from a recent magazine which discussed a woman living in Israel who has more than 15 children in a two room apartment – and feels gratitude towards God that she has been entrusted with so many young lives and so much of our people's future. Rabbi Weinberger explained how we have no control over how our spouses, our bosses, the IRS, or our children approach us or speak to us. We cannot ward off disease, suffering, and God forbid, loss and death. All we can control is what we say and do in response to these tests.
Individuals able to respond to challenges well, to teach their children how to live fully and in connection with their Creator regardless of the challenges they encounter, build structures which can never be torn down or washed away. In explaining what happened to us, I have sought to show my children that our losses provided us with a chance to experience chesed – kindness – from others and the chance to see how God controls all.
Recipients of Kindness
This experience has reinforced our belief in the innate goodness and kindness not only of Jews but of the American people as a whole. During an epic drive from Houston to visit our parents in North Carolina, we stopped briefly in Atlanta, Georgia to buy some gas. Our credit card did not process smoothly; between the hurricane and our rapid attempt to change the mailing address for bills we had to go inside and actually speak to a human being.
As a nearby woman heard my wife and me talking with the sales clerk about leaving New Orleans, she walked up, smiled, and said, "I want to give you this." In her hand was a winning lottery ticket and her collected earnings. This woman, on the spot, felt that she had to help out in some way, and offered us the money she had just won by purchasing a lotto ticket. This was one of the myriad of kindnesses showered upon us by strangers, friends, and family alike.
My wife and I were offered houses to settle in from as far away as Seattle, WA, Denver, CO, and Scranton, PA. Our yeshiva in Israel encouraged us to return to recharge our spiritual batteries, and while we were not able to go at this time, helped us see this time as an experience for growth, not blame. Strangers and friends alike have sent clothing, books, cards, and money. We learned from these offers and presents that not all tzedakah is the same.
When people give you something, the way in which they do it makes a difference. We experienced incredible generosity matched with sensitivity, as many donors went out of their way to avoid embarrassing us because of our post-Katrina situation. One family in Houston reassured us that they had "planned to give away these clothes," despite the preponderance of brand new items which ended up in the suitcases they also gave to us. Friends from Boston, Israel, New Jersey, and New York have contacted us to offer us help in ways that don't make us feel ashamed of our need to lean on others.
Some told us that we were sparing them from a trip to the nearest Goodwill store, while others said that they had planned on cleaning out their closets and that our sudden need for clothes helped them out. Our current "landlord" insists that the law prevents us from giving them money for our apartment. Children have slipped envelopes with gift cards under our door. Gift cards have arrived at our apartment signed "the friend of a friend."
By combining kindness with generosity these individuals helped put us at ease. In fact, we've received so many clothes that our closet shelf recently collapsed under the weight!
Putting Our Loss In Perspective
A gentleman in the United Orthodox Synagogue in Houston, Texas helped me to improve my thinking on our situation. He approached me after davening on Shabbos morning and asked quietly, "I heard that you lost everything to Katrina."
Expecting that this man, like others, had heard from the rabbi of our escape and the loss of our possessions, I nodded uncertainly.
"No you didn't," he said firmly. I imagined that he perhaps had information about our neighborhood that I didn't – perhaps some good news that our holy books had survived. He went on to tell me how his wife, a middle-aged woman in fine health, had passed away in the middle of the night without warning only a short while ago. "Everything that you lost can be replaced," he said emphatically. "You have your wife and children – those cannot be."
We are doing our best to take his advice to heart and put our loss of material goods in perspective. My family and I, now resettled in Boston, are seeking to make the best of our situation and to approach the Jewish New Year with a positive attitude and love for our Creator.