Refugees from the Storm
by Daniel P. Aldrich
Picking up the pieces in Katrina’s aftermath.
My wife and children are safe; they sleep quietly in our small rented room.
I know from historical experience that we Jews need to talk about our family and children first. As the Jewish people began to enter the land of Israel, two tribes, Reuven and Gad, sought land on the other side of the Jordan River. These groups phrased their request for Transjordan land in an interesting way; they asked for real estate for their cattle first and then sought land for their little ones.
In response, Moses rebuked them for three days. The sages explain this criticism based on the fact that we should always put our family first in conversation and in action, as the things that matter the most should be foremost on our mind.
My wife and children are safe, yes, but our car, our home, our sifrei kodesh (holy books), our toys, our clothes, our furniture, and our pots and pans are all gone, submerged under 10 feet of water. We have only the few items that my forward-looking wife managed to assemble before we joined the close to million other refugees fleeing the path of Hurricane Katrina. Our family of four can travel in a single suitcase, I’ve learned.
THE QUESTIONS WE DON’T ASK
We Jews do not ask: Why me? Why did this tragedy happen to me? We don’t ask these questions for several reasons. We don’t ask these questions precisely because we can ask these questions; hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed by rising floodwaters and wretched living conditions, yet God enabled us to survive. Families with children were trapped on the roofs of their houses; elderly and infirm passed away when they couldn’t receive dialysis, necessary medicines, and medical treatment.
Even though we are homeless and possession-less, we are quite lucky: we are alive and healthy.
We also don’t ask “How could God do this to me” because we know that everything has a purpose, even if we don’t understand it. Our sages teach us that eventually, we’ll be able to make a blessing on “good” things just like the “bad” things — so that, as hard as it is to believe, we’ll praise God the same way that we do for getting a raise as when we are fired from our job. In this case, we made the blessing Baruch Dayan HaEmet — God is the true Judge. We don’t understand why the Creator would destroy a city of 1.2 million people through flooding in the same way that we don’t understand why people are starving in Africa or dying in genocide in Central Europe. As believing Jews we trust that God has logic and reasoning far beyond ours.
The night after we fled from New Orleans, spending 14 hours in the car to go less than 350 miles, we arrived at a small hotel packed with others fleeing the storm. Everyone was panicky, edgy, and desperate for news. I saw in our experiences in this cramped hotel some small portion of what our ancestors felt about their real home, the Land of Israel, after they were exiled to Babylonia, Africa, and the other countries of the Diaspora. I imagine that Jewish families would press visitors from Israel for details: How is my family? How is my household? Do I still have a store there? What are the occupiers doing to our people?
So too, we refugees from the Crescent City sought comfort from over-hyped news reports, from aborted cell phone calls, from the newcomers who could tell us what happened. “How about Canal Boulevard?” we asked. “Do you know anything about my home?” “Is the looting as bad as we have heard?” We clung to every tidbit, longing to feel some measure of security. The definition of being in Exile means that such security will always be hard, if not impossible, to feel fully.
Exile forces us to recognize that even with a great job, large home, and two-car garage, God can, at any time, reduce us to homelessness and force us to rely on the assistance of others. God does not want us falsely believing that our strength, our hard work, our efforts alone determine our course in life.
We have seen from this tragedy more proof of the statement: Who is like your people, O Israel. Our lives were saved by a community member who stopped by our house to tell us: You need to leave the city. If this lady hadn’t warned us, we would be trapped like those unfortunate others who had to be rescued by helicopter or boat.
When we arrived in Houston and found a local kosher restaurant where we could break out of our refugee diet of crackers and peanut butter, someone nearby overheard my family talking about our “adventure” (as we described it to our children). After finishing our meal, we went to the front counter of the restaurant to pay. The Indian manager gestured at an empty table and told us, smiling, “That family paid for you.”
“What family?” we asked.
“That Orthodox family sitting in the corner,” he said, who had picked up on our plight; what a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. We have received phone calls from a scribe in Monsey, NY who offered to work with us to replace the mezuzahs that were destroyed by the rising floodwaters. Members of the Yeshiva Kol Yaakov in the same town assured us they’d do their best to help replace our sifrei kodesh. Rabbis and Jews from Israel, from Boston, from Houston have contacted us with offers of aid. Friends and family from around the country tried to contact us, to offer us a place to stay, to tell us that they want to help, to pray for us, to replace the physical things that we lost.
Judaism teaches us that wealth and possessions should be seen as instruments, as tools, and never as an end in and of themselves. We should never imagine ourselves solely as producers or consumers of material goods, as Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the marketing people would like us to be. Our books, our tables, our chairs, and even are cars are only tools to be used in the performance of God’s will.
Now that we have nothing but three changes of clothes, a crock-pot, and a bag of railroad toys for my children, we see how little we really need to live on. The way that my wife and I respond to this event — the words that we use in front of our children, the way we interact with each other — is far more important to our children’s development than the bookcases of books and boxes of toys rotting under the hot sun in New Orleans.
I called my rabbi and asked him what we should do. After listening to me rant and rave, Rabbi Friedman said: Imagine that you’ve been given this time as a gift. Forget about the material things that you lost; those can be replaced. What would you do with this newly acquired free time, when schools are not in session and you have no work responsibilities?
I tried to imagine this disaster as a gift from God, and realized that my family and I now have the chance to learn more Torah, to visit with friends and family, to reconnect to what truly matters.
Many of my teachers argue that when disaster strikes elsewhere — be it Indonesia or Indiana — we must look to improve ourselves and wake ourselves up from our spiritual slumber. The Chafetz Chaim, the saintly rabbi who emphasized the importance of speaking only good about others, is said to have fasted when he heard of a disaster on the other side of the globe. Don’t think that God is sending these messages to those people who don’t want to believe in him, one of my teachers told me; he is speaking directly to you, to us, to those of us who recognize the Creator in all that happens.
God has spoken to us with another tragedy that struck literally on our home, and the homes our of community in New Orleans: the only question for me, and my family, is how we will improve ourselves and rise to the occasion.