Sandy: A Spiritual, Scriptural Response

This sermon was delivered at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Synagogue in New York City, days after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast.

This is a powerful moment. It's our first time together in large numbers as a community after witnessing and experiencing the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy.

We are thinking of those in this synagogue and those beyond our walls who lost power, thinking of those among us who lost possessions, those who lost homes, those who lost life. We are hurting, and the pain will continue for some time. But we are also healing. We may have less fuel and less electricity, but make no mistake, we are not powerless.

This week I had the great privilege of joining New Yorkers of every stripe to come together and address the profound, human needs left by Hurricane Sandy's aftermath.

We did a lot of carrying. Carrying water and food, flashlights and coats, into the synagogue, out into cars, into shelters, carrying hot meals by flashlight up countless flights of pitch black stairs. As we carried these supplies which were lifelines for residents who were otherwise alone and cut off, I carried with me images from this week's Torah portion.

Vayaar, vayaratz -- he saw, he ran

At the beginning this week's portion, Avraham is visited by God at his tent. And seemingly in the middle of that visit, he sees something else, gets up and runs away! Why? What did he see? Avraham saw people in need. Vulnerable strangers on the way. He said wait a minute God, and he ran to meet the needs of others. He rushed to bring people he had never met food and water.
Let me tell you, that is exactly what I saw happening all across New York as people rushed, literally running, to help others.

Right here, in our synagogue, we opened our collective doors to hurricane victims, called vulnerable seniors, coordinated meals and places to stay, even housed a school. We put out a call for donations and within hours the coatroom was full. We collected and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of food, water, clothes, batteries, toiletries. We asked for drivers to bring the supplies to people in need and cars showed up, people even rented a U-Haul. And within just hours we had delivered them to hard hit areas -- Brighton Beach, the Lower East Side, to shelters across Manhattan. All this while simultaneously having our lives disrupted in so many ways.
This didn't just happen in our synagogue. As we put out the call for volunteers, literally hundreds of people called, texted, tweeted and just showed up to help. I worked with women and men, CEOs to children, from all faiths and no faith. We connected through e-mail, texting, Facebook, Twitter and the desire to help, to give, to serve. One Facebook post at 6 p.m. Tuesday night about meal deliveries to homebound seniors resulted in more than 30 people showing up at the address the next morning. Someone in Georgia tweeted that a woman in Teaneck who was on her social network was running out of gas for a generator that was powering her daughter's breathing machine. Within five minutes we got a hold of a doctor in Teaneck, an Orthodox Jew, and within 10 minutes he drove over to check on the family, who are, by the way, devout Muslims. They were safe and grateful.
Vayichlu hamayim -- and the water ran out. Vatisa et kola vayivech -- and she raised her voice and wept.

In the portion, Hagar is in the desert, running out of water and unable to bear the screams of her starving child. She has nowhere to turn. I thought of this story when one of Uri L'Tzedek's volunteers, while visiting apartment buildings, was greeted by a woman, crying, with with a screaming baby on her shoulder.  She didn't speak English but wrote down a note for the volunteer, who promised to return.  The volunteer went to the street, found a person who spoke Chinese and English, and translated the note to learn the woman needed baby formula. The volunteer walked the streets until she found an open bodega, purchased the formula and returned, formula in hand.

V'yashev b'maareah, V'ish ein ba'retz -- And they sat in a cave, and there was no person in the land. 

In the portion, Lot and his family are stuck in a dark cave, without a clue as to what is happening in the world. Today, thousands of elderly seniors are stuck in high rises, with no phone, radio, electricity or water.  
I visited a 94-year-old woman and her aide, trapped on the 11th floor of a public housing building. The elderly woman was confused, and they had almost run out of fresh water. The aide had been there for two days and needed to return to the Bronx because she had run out of medicine, but she feared for the life of her client if she left. She had no cell phone reception and little battery, and the landline wasn't working. We were able to reach her son, but he couldn't help because he was bedridden with cancer in Brooklyn. With no other option, used our phones to call 911 to transport the elderly woman to the hospital where she would be safe and the aide could go home and take her medicine.
Another to the top floor of a different building on the Lower East Side where I met Lorraine. Ninety-four-years-old, Lorraine had no running water or power for days it didn't seem to bother her much. Volunteers had brought her food and water for three days straight and she was OK. To pass the time she'd been writing poems about the stars and the oceans. She read a few to me. I still remember one line: "Jewels from a sunken ship, drifting through the ocean."

This Shabbat is hopefully a time when many of us are taking our first deep breaths since Sunday. Take it. But tomorrow, we will continue to respond. We'll send out more information tonight and tomorrow morning about ongoing efforts to support, as we come together and strive to reach God's vision for the children of Abrhama, as made explicit in this week's portion, to be guardians of God's way, doing righteousness and justice.

But let's focus one more minute on now. Now we are in Shabbat. Now we are praying as a community, another important way we can heal and help in Sandy's wake. As we move together into final prayer of the day, one final thought from the portion on responding spiritually to Sandy.

For the rabbis of the Talmud, this very portion is the beginning of prayer. The Talmud (Brachot 26b) says, Tefillot avot tiknum, "Prayer was established by the Avot (patriarchs)," and then uses the following verse (Genesis 19:27) from this week's parasha to prove how Abraham established prayer: Vayashkem Avraham ba'boker el hamakom asher amad sham et pnei Hashem -- "and Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he stood to the face of God."

The connection is in the word "amad," to stand, and its connection to the "Amidah." Strangely though, the Torah relates just one chapter later (Genesis 20:17) that Abraham prayed (hitpallel) to God! " The word hitpallel is directly related to tefilah. When proving that Abraham established prayer, why didn't the Talmud use this verse? Further, in the case of Abraham's tefilah, God answered his prayer and miraculously healed Avimelech! Why isn't this clear, successful prayer our foundational model?

The Talmud's counterintuitive proof-text offers a powerful lesson. Let's take a deeper look our original proof-text: "Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he stood to the face of God." This place was of deep significance to Abraham. It was the place where he stood and confronted God on the destruction of S'dom and Amorah (Radak), the place where Abraham, alone, face-to-face with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, mustered all his courage to demand "will the Judge of all the earth not do justice!?"

By using this verse as a foundation for Jewish prayer, the Talmud teaches us that the place of Jewish prayer is not centered in miracles or good fortunes. Rather, prayer is the place where we confront what is broken. Prayer is the place where we struggle with a God who loves righteousness and justice but allows suffering. Prayer's place is where we, like Abraham, stand and see the distance between the world as it is and the world as it could be. This is where our prayer begins. Where hope begins. Where redemption begins. We have a lot of work to do. Let's get started.