Lessons of Yom Kippur and Hurricanes: ‘It is not in the heavens …’ but in our hands!

“Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Deuteronomy 30:11-14, read each year at Yom Kippur


“Let’s form a chain!”

That’s a call to action celebrated this month by millions of people around the world who have read the story and viewed video of strangers saving the life of an elderly man in Houston. He was stranded helplessly in his vehicle as the rising flood from Hurricane Harvey threatened to sweep him away and extinguish his life. Strangers watching this man’s plight from a distance could have simply recoiled in horror. Anyone in the area already was stunned by the deadly power of the roiling waters that were just about to overwhelm this poor old man.

But, instead of fleeing, someone raised a simple rallying cry: “Let’s form a chain!”

Strangers began to stretch out their hands and form a human chain, inching into the chest-high water to force open the vehicle’s door and rescue the man. Soon, instead of mourning cries in that man’s family, there were shouts of joy at the old man’s reunion with his son.

The litany of the 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season already is terrifying.

We have met the monstrous Harvey,
And the force Irma’s fury,
And Jose, too.
Yes, Katia was less than we feared,
And Lee as well—
But Maria looms large
And “our” Hurricane Season will run through
The holiday we call American Thanksgiving.
How much devastation is yet to come?

No, that is not exactly a prayer, although it reads like one of the ancient cries from Psalms, voicing the suffering of the people.

When natural disasters happen, it is not uncommon for people to wonder, sometimes in deep anger: “Where is God?” We’ve all been angry at God, at some point in our lives, haven’t we? We’ve wanted to wrestle God down to the mat. Maybe you’ve been there.

The problem is that it’s difficult to take on the Invisible!

Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, is the title of a popular and lively Broadway show, but the phrase comes from a poem by James Weldon Johnson. It comes to mind when wrestling with the question, “Where is God in tragic times?” Maybe our arms are too short to box with God—but we might discover that they are not too short to link with others when serving those in need.

Whatever our beliefs about God, they usually reveal far more about us than about God. God is not changed by our various conceptions. God’s timeless and indivisible oneness is a basic part of the Shema repeated daily by Jews, including at Yom Kippur.

So what can we pray as Yom Kippur approaches (and thousands of Christian and Muslim clergy continue to plan their weekly services) in the midst of this horrific 2017 Hurricane Season?

A Hurricane (and Yom Kippur) Prayer:
‘Let’s form a chain!’

Our litany of Atlantic storms, above, may be regarded as the start of a Psalm for this Hurricane Season in America.

Then, beyond that agonized cry, where do we focus our collective prayers?

This week, millions of Jewish men and women around the world will mark the fast of Yom Kippur. Each year, news reports about this holiday in newspapers, magazines and websites describe this observance as “solemn.” Annual holiday stories usually mention the severity of the fast (nothing passes the lips for 25 hours). And, news reports focus on the almost universal observance of this “holiest day in the Jewish calendar.” Stories often show images of the empty streets of normally busy Israeli cities.

This year, as non-Jews, let’s remember another powerful theme of Yom Kippur that Christians around the world certainly share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. That’s the ancient call from Moses when he assembled all the people to remind them of their covenant with God—not as individuals but as a people. To this day, these deeply stirring sections of Moses’ message from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 are read aloud to the community assembled for Yom Kippur.

During the day-long cycle of Yom Kippur services, the people also voice an ancient prayer of confession. As in all the world’s great religious traditions, some form of confession is a daily expectation in Judaism—nearly always voiced as “my” confession as “I” repent.

That’s different on Yom Kippur. As the day unfolds, the people hear the timeless commandments from Leviticus, a code that includes not only the famous “10” commandments, but also the biblical admonishment of what that code means. The Yom Kippur readings from Leviticus include:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord your God. … When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The powerful, cumulative effect of these readings is punctuated by the repeated Viddui, or prayer of confession, voiced for Yom Kippur, not as “I,” but as “we.” The people have gathered and collectively “we” are called to admit our failings and vow to work toward greater unity.

Our arms may be too short to box with God, but they are long enough to link with other courageous, loving people in service to the world. With apologies to more eloquent Jewish sages, we might say that the Yom Kippur message about reuniting the people is simply this: Maybe our hearts are too shriveled or our bodies are too weak and willful—but our arms are not too short to reach out to each other in our families and in our communities and around this entire broken world.

In that ancient appeal, our Jewish friends join a global religious chorus of compassionate concern for our neighbors—and all the “others” surrounding us in this world.

To simplify that collective prayer even further, we might voice it as:

“Let’s form a chain!”

“Let’s form a chain!”

“Let’s form a chain!”


Care to read more?

You may enjoy seeing several books written by Benjamin Pratt.

Among our Jewish authors, who you might enjoy exploring during this season, are: Rabbi Bob Alper, Rabbi Joseph Krakoff with Dr. Michelle SiderDebra Darvick, Lynne Meredith Golodner, Brenda Rosenberg, Suzy Farbman, Robert Pasick, and many of the Women of WISDOM.

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