A Hurricane Maria Recovery Message from Our Rabbis


  The morning before Erev Sukkot, we had a little storm in Northeastern Pennsylvannia. Surprisingly for our area, the power was knocked out. We had a number of people coming to eat dinner in our sukkah, including a couple we had never met, and many dishes to prepare, mostly made with fresh vegetables from our garden. Oh no, what to do?! We made do, adjusting our menu and keeping the fridge closed, and the power came back on about 4 hours later, much to our relief. Dinner was lovely. And just two days ago, the door broke on our microwave. We spent hours on the phone trying to find someone to fix it. We weren’t even aware of how much we use it. Luckily, someone was able to come yesterday and take care of it.

Electricity. Fresh food. Hot showers. Flush toilets. Refrigeration. Fans or air conditioners in a hot climate. Reliable cell service. Wifi. Power companies that have the ability to respond quickly. Availability of local repair people. These are things we take for granted every day, and what a major shift in daily life when they are not available. No matter how much we read, or how much we text and talk with those of you on the island, we are very, very far from the day-to-day lived experience of what you are going through. Priorities change, needs are triaged, and life becomes focused in a very different way.

Almost six weeks after Maria, we continue to watch the Island we have come to love from our respective distances (Rabbi Marjorie from Pennsylvania, Rabbi Marna from Washington).  We know we cannot begin to grasp what those of you on-Island have been through, what many of you have lost, the damage to your homes and the stress and frustration you continue to experience in the aftermath of the hurricanes.  

We are far away in both distance and experience, but the wisdom of our tradition is never far. It is no stranger to devastation and reversal of fortune. This year, we did not get to celebrate the cycle of fall holidays in the way we had planned. But with the steadiness of centuries and the surety of the cyclical nature of things, the holidays that have passed speak to this time. Here are a few thoughts from each:

The High Holy Days speak of renewal.   Whatever has happened in the past year, wherever we have failed or wherever the world has turned from light, Hayom harat olam, the liturgy says on Rosh haShanah: Today the world is born anew. We stop, at this time of year, and begin again, from wherever we are. From devastation, we see tenacious new life sprouting. Within days after Maria, the ravaged branches were putting forth new leaves. So much of our experience is defined by how we choose to look at it. In the days and months ahead, how can we have compassion for our own suffering and the suffering of our neighbors, and at the same time, see opportunities for new growth and a deepening of relationships and communities? 

Sukkot brings us themes of fragility.  The huts or booths we traditionally build and dwell in for the holiday are flimsy and temporary.  In 185-mile-an-hour winds, our usually-solid houses also feel flimsy and impermanent.  We are reminded of the fragility and preciousness of life. In an interpretive  translation of Ecclesiastes, traditionally read on Sukkot, it says:
“Emptiness! Emptiness upon emptiness!
The world is fleeting of form,
empty of permanence,
void of surety,
without certainty.
Like a breath breathed once and gone,
all things rise and fall.
Understand emptiness, and tranquility replaces anxiety.
Understand emptiness, and compassion replaces jealousy.
Understand emptiness, and you will cease to excuse suffering and begin to alleviate it.”

(Chapter 1, verse 2. Interpretive Translation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro in The Way of Solomon) Our tradition asks us to come to terms with the fragility and impermanence of life and with our own mortality so that we can live in the present moment with gratitude and without fear. This is usually a metaphysical challenge. For those of you on-island, it is an actual one.

Simchat Torah is the time when we go seamlessly from ending to beginning again. At the end of Deuteronomy, we find that Moses our teacher has died without setting foot in the Promised Land, but....moments later, we read: “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth!” As in Torah, so too in life: endings lead into beginnings. The pain of the ending is present, and will always be with us, but life does not stand still. We begin again. Ain berirah, goes the expression—“there is no choice.” We do it because we must.

As you struggle with the daily challenges--emotional, physical, and spiritual, personal and communal—we’d like to know: How might we help? We have been talking about how we can best support you, the community we love, in healing and recovery.  We have some ideas, and will welcome yours in the days and weeks and months to come.

-Rabbi Marna and Rabbi Marjorie