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The Quiet Without the Storm

Hachnassas Orchim, inviting guests, is a hallmark of Judaism. From the time of Avraham inviting the three angels into his tent, to the state of Israel taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, this is what we do. Nonetheless, I am so impressed and inspired by the community of Atlanta, Georgia, who this Shabbos are collectively hosting over 1,000 men, women, and children, complete strangers, who have made the drive from Florida up to Atlanta.  

The two large shuls in Atlanta have turned into restaurants, providing breakfast, lunch, and supper – for free, to anyone who is stranded. Families are hosting complete strangers in their homes. I was told that one family in Atlanta is hosting 75 people for every meal. Chesed is what we do at times like these.

Times like these also bring out our faith. In addition to the almost one million dollars raised by the Orthodox Union for those hit by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, the OU has encouraged people to sign up to recite chapters of Tehillim, of Psalms.

Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg of Boca Raton Synagogue, who together with her husband chose to stay in Boca to be there for anyone who needs them during these difficult times, posted on Facebook a picture of her supplies for the hurricane: Candles, water, flashlights, and a little sign with the words, Ein Od Milvado, which loosely translates into, G-d runs the world. A deepening of our faith is what we experience at times like these.

And times like these also awaken within us a sense of awe. A number of people have forwarded me images of the storm, pointing out that the shape of Irma looks kind of like a Shofar. Check it out after Shabbos. Personally, at times like these, I don’t think we need a Shofar-looking hurricane to awaken within us a sense of awe to the force behind nature. Watching videos of buildings collapse on the islands, seeing before and after pictures of highways in Houston turned into rivers, that does it for me. Mashiv haruach umorid hageshem, He who makes the wind blow and rain fall, takes on a whole new meaning these days.

A sense of unity, faith, and awe; so many powerful feelings during these times.  

But as well know, these feelings quickly dissipate.

This is not a new problem, it’s quite an old one. Eliyahu HaNavi, one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish People struggled with the fleetingness of powerful feelings. In his lifetime, the Jewish People of the Northern Kingdom were steeped in idolatry. Eliyahu thought he could turn the people around with a fire and lightshow. He brought the entire population to Mt. Carmel, had a showdown with the idolatrous prophets, brought a raging fire down from Heaven, and in the end, the people were sold, “Ein Od Milvado!” they exclaimed – the same words Rebbetzin Goldberg has with her hurricane supplies. They became believers overnight.

But the next day, the Torah tells us, they were back to the same old life. Their faith in G-d disappeared as quickly as it came. We all know this experience. We’ve all been there. High Holidays are around the corner – I am sure there have been moments in the past, during those holy days, that you made up in your mind to be better, to be more present, to be more G-d-conscious, and then, a short while later it’s gone. It’s a pretty lousy feeling. And it’s a feeling that Eliyahu himself felt. He was broken, the Torah tells us. He subjected himself to a self-imposed exile. He didn’t understand how it could be that the Jewish People could rise and fall so quickly.

And G-d eventually appears to him and tells him why. First G-d sends a whirlwind towards Eliyahu, and Eliyahu knows it’s Divinely-sent and so he looks for G-d but doesn’t see Him. Then G-d sends an earthquake, Eliyahu looks, and again, doesn’t see G-d. Then G-d sends a fire. G-d’s not there. Until finally, there is what the Torah describes as a kol d’mammah dakah, a thin still voice, and G-d appears.  

What G-d was trying to convey Eliyahu was that drama, intensity, fire and brimstone or fireworks, all of that is good, but for a very short amount of time. It wears off all too quickly.

But if we can find G-d when it’s quiet, if we can find Him when we’re not stuck, overwhelmed, or even inspired, then we have a much better chance of hanging on. The thin still voice, that’s where G-d’s found.

It’s like the famous joke of the guy who is looking for a parking spot on a busy street in Manhattan. He’s driving in circles for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. He has a job interview and he can’t be late! So as a last resort, this man who isn’t exactly the biggest believer in G-d looks up and says, “Listen G-d, I really need your help. Please allow me to find a parking spot! If you do, I’ll start eating kosher!” Nothing doing.

“G-d, I’ll keep Shabbos!” Still, driving and driving. Two minutes to the interview.  

Finally, “G-d, if you find me a parking spot I’ll go to shul every day!” And just as those words are coming out of his mouth, the car to his right zips out of its spot. The man turns to G-d and says, “Never mind I found a spot!”

At the risk of over-analyzing a joke, I think it has a profound message. When the man didn’t think it was possible to find a parking space, he thought that G-d finding Him a spot meant something out of the ordinary taking place. That’s where G-d comes in. He expected another car to vanish into thin air and make way for his car. He expected a flood to wash away the entire row of cars next to him and only his car will be left with more than enough room to park. That would be G-d intervening. But for the person next to him to pull out, that’s not G-d. That’s the person next to him pulling out. Where’s the Divine intervention in someone moving a car out at the right time?

But that’s a mistake. Because G-d is found in that silent, thin voice. We need G-d to make it through a regular day just like we need Him for when everything goes wrong. We don’t need catastrophes to find G-d, and we don’t need catastrophes to do more kindness.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful to watch people change and act in the face of hurricanes. But it’s even more beautiful and much more lasting when we’re able to do so here, now, in the quiet without the storm.

That’s the kol d’mamah dakah. Drama is inspiring, crises wake us up, the high holidays are awesome. But for lasting change, we don’t need the fireworks, I’d be quite happy without them.

We read the tochacha today. The tochacha is a long list of curses that G-d tells us will befall the Jewish People if they don’t follow in the ways of the Torah. You may have noticed that the Baal Koreh read those curses rather quietly. It’s an ancient custom to do so. The classical reason given is that we don’t want to awaken the prosecuting angel. That reason never really spoke to me. If we’re deserving of punishment it’s going to happen one way or another.

But perhaps the idea is that we whisper these curses because our faith recognizes that yelling and screaming doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with our children and it certainly doesn’t work with adults. So yes, we need to read this dark passage, G-d wants us to be forewarned. But a whisper is far more powerful than a yell. The kol d’mamah dakah that penetrates our heart and soul if we listen out for it.  

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, recently wrote a book called Option B. I highly recommend it for anyone who experienced loss in their lives. It is moving, inspiring, and full of practical little tidbits of wisdom for coping with difficulties. In this book, Option B, she discusses PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. We’re all familiar with PTSD, how some people are impacted negatively due to stressors in their life. But she cites some fascinating research that recently came out that points to PTG, post-traumatic growth. Researchers have discovered that many people who experience a traumatic episode in their lives report to have grown and changed significantly because of this or that hardship.  

What Sheryl suggests in her book is that we need to develop Pre-Traumatic growth. In other words, we don’t need to experience hardship to live an inspiring life, we don’t need to lose a loved one to learn what it means to love, we don’t need to feel vulnerable to experience a deep faith. We can reach out to others even when they’re home is not being flooded. We don’t need a hurricane to find G-d. We can find Him in a cloudless sky. Pre-Traumatic Growth, finding G-d in the kol d’mamah dakah. Let’s change before we experience trauma, in the quiet without the storm.  

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