As the High Holy days approach, I turn inward. I take a personal accounting of my actions, words and thoughts. I also start to focus on the liturgy. I find that some of the metaphors and prayers offered throughout the days of awe are more easily digestible than others. Some years, the God who sits upon a throne weighing each person’s actions on a scale before inscribing him or her in the book of life or death is comforting, and other years, terrifying.
Unetana Tokef, (read it here) a prayer which some find incredibly meaningful, has been sickening to me since the moment I have been old enough to internalize the gravity of natural disasters and understand my own mortality. I think the first time I truly felt the awesome nature of this prayer was following the 2004 tsunami. I had never heard of a tsunami before, and wow- what a terrifying image! A wall of water coming on land immediately drowning and destroying everything in its path. It defies all sense of normalcy. I think we are more terrified of the natural disasters of our neighbors than of our own. Californians do not walk around terrified of earthquakes, but, as a native born Texan, earthquakes do terrify me!
During High Holy Days when we read the Unetana Tokef prayer, who shall live and who shall die, it’s horrifying to look around the sanctuary wondering who won’t make it till next year’s services. And some of the people who will die are not even sick yet; they have no idea what fate awaits them in the year to come. Who by fire? Who by water? The prayer was written centuries ago… yet the circumstances are still the same. We can’t protect ourselves from divine disasters. Most of the year we sit in blissful naivety. Yet on these days we are forced to think of our own mortality. We are forced to contemplate if we “deserve” to live
The more I see of the world’s tragic twists and turns the more significant the meaning of these words are to me; I have not been able to shake this prayer for the past week. How is it decided where the next plague will be? Where the next famine will be? Where will flood, and where will be spared?
Houston, my childhood city, is flooding. My grandmother’s home was flooded in 2001 by Allison; it took on 5 feet of water. Everything was destroyed! My sister wisely pointed out that when you loose something to fire, it’s gone in an instant. Water is slow rising, it lingers, and then as it recedes you are forced to muddle though the wreckage. You can see the line on every bit of sheet rock left by the muddy brown water that seeped into every crevice. You walk through and organize the soggy mess searching for even the smallest, salvageable remnant.
We know what it’s like cleaning up after a flood. Driving through entire neighborhoods with piles of ruined carpet, furniture, and drywall piled on the curb waiting to be hauled away. Everyone must get the soaked pieces out as quickly as possible. We know how long the wait is for the insurance adjuster, the cleaning crew and the overbooked construction companies. Where would YOU stay for the next 6 months to a year if YOUR home were destroyed?
Loosing all possessions is devastating, but the loss of life is even worse. When a city of 6 million, like Houston, has a catastrophic disaster, there is going to be loss of life. Even though this time has been much better than with past storms, there is no way to evacuate everyone. The media has been constantly reminding people to roll down their windows to escape a flooding car, to crawl onto their roofs rather than into their attics.
It all sounds so surreal! It seems like a bad dream seeing people jet skiing, canoeing, and actually boating through major streets, and on top of lawns. Seeing my friends’ homes with water reaching the second story stairs, and watching medical heli-vac videos is inconceivable. I cannot believe how many people I personally know who have been evacuated to relief centers. I am awe struck by the magnitude of this event.
The words of the High Holy Days will not leave my consciousness no matter how hard I try to suppress them! What will my childhood congregation, Beth Israel do now that their sanctuary is flooded, (22 days before Rosh Hashanah) how will any of them be able to utter… who by water?
As I read my Facebook feed, looking for answers, checking in on friends and family, I can’t help but notice what an amazing community we have!
People are networking for boat rides to safety, people are advocating for supplies for others. Neighbors are opening their doors to strangers in need of electricity, food, and a dry place to stay. Selfless, caring families are extending their homes to families in need; in some cases, more than one family at a time. These stories are too numerous to count, and bring constant tears to my eyes.
But as the water settles, we will begin to ask the deeper questions. Questions about global warming, weather trends, governmental budgeting, city planning, and federal aid spending. Many of us will ask the theological questions that catastrophic events stir within us.
Our hearts go out to the people in Texas suffering from the ongoing catastrophic effects of the flooding there. Relief plans are still in process but here are a few ways you can make a difference.
We pray for the first responders and those they are trying to help that they have the strength, courage and success.