Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thoughts from Katrina...

By Margaret Frisch Klein “Prayer invites God to let the Divine presence suffuse our spirits, to let God’s will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.” (Adapted from Gates of Prayer)

This week’s Torah portion continues with a series of mitzvot, seventy-two to be exact. I want to concentrate on one of them. Deuteronomy 22 begins: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find; you must not remain indifferent.”

It is really very simple. It is about protecting and returning lost property and animals. The last three weeks have seen Americans fulfilling this series of mitzvot. It is impossible to remain indifferent when the scenes of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi flash on our television screens. We have watched rescue workers work tirelessly to reunite families. People throughout the country have opened their pocketbooks, their homes, their schools to provide water, food, shelter, and clothing. It is not enough yet, but signs of hope are returning to New Orleans and other hard-hit gulf coast communities.

It is important to remember in our race to help that these are people entitled to all the dignity we can muster. Some have lost everything. As they begin to return to what were their homes, the size of the devastation is becoming clearer. Some are angry. Some are depressed. Some are grateful to be able to salvage a family photo album, a cherished toy, a grandmother’s Shabbat candlestick. But they do not need garbage bags of dirty laundry or worn out clothing. We need to remember that as human beings they are created b’tzelim elohim, in the likeness of God. Then we begin to return not only the physical possessions but also hope, dignity and a new sense of normality.

Other stories are emerging, too. The dolphins from the ruined aquarium that had swum out to sea have been rescued, penguins from the zoo have been sent to a sister zoo, and countless family pets have also been rescued. And even more importantly, the 1700 children separated from the parents are beginning to be reunited.

It is a slow process. Our portion continues in Chapter 24: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it, else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt….You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow—in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”

Our tradition mandates that we take care of the most vulnerable among us—the widow, the orphan and the stranger. Perhaps this list should read, “The single mother, the mentally challenged, the immigrant.” Our country could learn a great deal from this as we learn from the experience of Katrina. We are beginning to realize that part of the problem with the initial response to Hurricane Katrina is it showed the growing rift in our society between the haves and the have-nots. The ones with means found ways to get out of New Orleans under “mandatory evacuations.” The most vulnerable—the disabled, the elderly, those on monthly fixed incomes whose money had run out and were not expecting another check until the first of the month, those on welfare, over 100,000 without cars—found no way out, and they were the ones who suffer the most.

Pirkei Avot teaches that in a place were no one behaves like a human being, strive to be human! Let us not remain indifferent—not to the personal loss as it continues to unfold and not to the societal ills that contributed to the tragedy. Pirkei Avot also teaches, “the day is short, the task is great, and the workers are sluggish, and the wages are high and the Master of the House is pressing. You are not required to complete the work, neither are you free to ignore it.” Join with me as we work toward the vision of society our tradition commands.

Three strong tzedakah boxes from Steven Bronstein of Vermont.

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