We creep to our bed, and its straw mattress.
We wait; we listen.
The storm lulls off, then redoubles,
Bending the trees half-way down to the ground,
Shaking loose the last wizened oranges in the orchard,
Flattening the limber carnations.
A spider eases himself down from a swaying light-bulb,
Running over the coverlet, down under the iron bedstead.
The bulb goes on and off, weakly.
Water roars into the cistern.
We lie closer on the gritty pillow,
Breathing heavily, hoping—
For the great last leap of the wave over the breakwater,
The flat boom on the beach of the towering sea-swell,
The sudden shudder as the jutting sea-cliff collapses,
And the hurricane drives the dead straw into the living pine-tree.
[excerpted from The Storm by Theodore Roethke, 1908 – 1963]
“We wait; we listen”… That’s precisely how many of us have spent the last month, waiting for news of friends and loved ones impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, listening to the grim reports of the catastrophic devastation wrought by their one-two punch and by a massive earthquake centered in Mexico.
When we welcome the Festival of Sukkot on Wednesday evening, October 4, we’ll gather in our sukkah, our intentionally fragile hut, that will now become an especially potent reminder of the impermanence of all things material. Although Sukkot is a festival during which the Torah commands us to rejoice, for many of us that will be a difficult mitzvah to observe this year as our thoughts turn to lives lost and battered and the hundreds of thousands of people–in Texas, in the Caribbean, in Florida–who haven’t even three walls to call home.
Our response to these kinds of disasters and the pain and suffering they engender needs to be multi-faceted. It should incorporate a sense of gratitude for our relative well-being; it must include a commitment to ameliorating the suffering of its victims, through generous acts of tzedakah and/or volunteering our time and expertise; it must include a serious and sober analysis of what policies and practices (i.e. climate-change denial, non-existent or harmful zoning laws) exacerbated the pain and loss occasioned by these hurricanes because we know all too well that more like them will follow in the future. Someone sardonically quipped that, after Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Irma, God is running out of ways to show deniers the impact of global warming on climate change!
Ernest Hemingway, whose Key West home was right in the path of Hurricane Irma, had personal experience of such storms. He wrote, “He knew too what it was to live through a hurricane with the other people of the island and the bond that the hurricane made between all people who had been through it. He also knew that hurricanes could be so bad that nothing could live through them.” [ from Islands in the Stream]
Envisioning the eventual unfolding of God’s plans for the people of Israel and of humanity, the prophet Isaiah said:
4:5 The Eternal will create over all of Mount Zion and all who dwell there, a cloud of smoke by day, and the glow of flaming fire by night: over everything [God’s] glory will be a canopy.
4:6 And there will be a shelter (Hebrew sukkah) and a shade from the heat in the daytime, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Whether Isaiah’s prophecy will unfold remains to be seen, but this we affirm: we are God’s hands and it is incumbent upon us to provide refuge and shelter, comfort, hope and sustenance to the victims of the storms that life sends our way.