March 24, 2006
In New Orleans, we say: “Where y’at?” Others ask: “How are you?” On one of my favorite television shows, Joey’s line is: “How you doing?” In one form or another it is the question that all of us are asked by friends and family, or we are asking of ourselves. It has been almost seven months since, what Chris Rose has labeled, “The Thing”, or what some simply refer to as “The Storm”, while others use the name, “Katrina” descended upon us.
This Shabbat we read Vayakhel/Pekude, the last portion in the Book of Exodus. It includes a review of the events in the life of Moses and the Israelites. With the portion as backdrop, we too can avail ourselves of the opportunity to take stock of where we are in our journey on the road to recovery, something we need to do periodically.
In case you had not noticed, rabbis don’t think like normal people. We are always on the lookout for parallels between life and text, seeking God’s hidden messages for us to manage our daily affairs in meaningful ways. Reflecting on the Book of Exodus I find a number of parallels to what we have all endured in the past few months.
So there we were at the beginning of the book, dwelling in Egypt, minding our own business, not bothering anyone. We were happy, content, perhaps a bit self-absorbed. Then along came an oppressor, who would steal our tranquility, rob us of our sense of security, and turn our lives upside down. On Purim, I equated Haman to Katrina. Tonight, Pharoah’s name is Katrina. She rose up to oppress us and we needed to escape.
Most of us departed and made the waters part to find the dry land in Houston, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Atlanta and various other points on the globe. Initially we felt safe and secure. I recall leading a service in Houston on the Monday night after the storm, before we knew about levee failure and canal overflow. At that time, like the Israelites reciting the Song of the Sea, having reached dry land, we thought we had dodged the bullet once again. And we were spared to some extent, but there was more hardship to come.
Then we began our wandering. For some it was from city to city, or from hotel to apartment, or from temporary shelter to a house. Our eyes would glance back in disbelief to what had been our home town. We were and still are incredulous over the extent of destruction and suffering.
And so, like the Israelites, we were forced to temporarily reorganize ourselves. In the Torah this is the period of formulating laws for guidance. For us it involved creating contacts, finding schools, re-establishing work habits, reaching out to others, and fashioning homes. All the while, we gazed towards the Promised Land, hoping to return to our real home in safety and security.
In the meantime, God instructs us to build a Tabernacle, a temporary abode for our wilderness travel, a place where we can connect to what is really important. That is where we find ourselves tonight in Torah and for most of us in our lives.
As the concluding portion in the Book of Exodus it includes a review and description of the building of the tabernacle and an accounting by Moses on exactly how all the donations were applied. Review, accountability and reflection are the elements that speak to us tonight.
“Vayakhel Moshe: And Moses gathered all the congregation of the Children of Israel and said to them: These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you shall do them.”
Two different commentators look at this text calling for gathering the people and offer us related perspectives. The first (Or Penei Moshe) writes, “As is known, the Second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred. Division and disputes always serve to undermine foundations of the social order. Therefore, before erecting the Sanctuary, Moses gathered all the people of Israel. The completion of the Sanctuary/Tabernacle depends upon the unity of the people.”
Prior to Katrina our community was also filled with sinat chinam, senseless hatred, regional parochialism, bickering, racism, cronyism and more. It all contributed to poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, violence and crime. We can revert to our former ways and if we do, we will surely fall. Katrina literally changed the landscape of our community, providing us with an opportunity to make a difference, to rebuild and improve, to get involved, but we must be unified in that vision first.
Another commentator adds (Mi-ginzeinu Ha-atik) “When it comes to gathering together people, there is no problem: there are countless committees and conferences, meetings and sessions, morning, noon and night. They speak and debate, argue and discuss, without end. That was why Moses commanded: ‘that you should do them.’- the purpose of all your meetings must be action.”
Meetings and committees are a rabbinic occupational hazard. I know that I am not the only one to suffer from this malady. However, of late I have participated in two committees of our congregation, both dedicated to making the lives of our members in Post Katrina time better. The energy, level of participation and involvement in those meetings were extraordinary. Most significantly, arising from the gathering will be a series of actions. That is what our commentator had in mind.
Certainly throughout New Orleans there have been a plethora of talking heads and meetings. The Bring Back New Orleans Commission worked hard to present a report and strategy to rebuild our city and I say “our city”, because regardless of where we live, the City of New Orleans is the engine that drives our communal life. We need to support the efforts that will initiate well thought out action plans into place as soon as possible. People have their lives on hold and are dependent upon clear understandings of the future. Yes, there will need to be necessary sacrifices and areas that do not rebuild. Those of us, who are white and affluent, tend to be more accepting of this than those who are black and poor, according to a recent poll. We need to be sensitive to this.
With city elections on the horizon, we need to hold the candidates accountable and demand specifics on what they will and will not do, recognizing that they are not autonomous. Nonetheless, we need people who will act, not simply deliberate and support those who we feel will do the best job, whether we live in Orleans or not.
Now is a time to gather the people for rebuilding. But our portion provides us with an additional thought. Immediately after calling for the gathering, we receive a caveat, a reminder that we must have our personal priorities in order. “Six days will work be done, but the seventh day is Shabbat.” Yes, we need to rebuild and plan for the future, but not 24/7. We need to be good to ourselves, take breaks, find pockets of pleasure and release.
Shabbat is holy time that we set apart for rest. I suggest that we create holy time, when we say or do nothing about or even peripherally related to Katrina. We can’t ignore her and her aftereffects, but neither do we have to allow her to dominate every aspect of our being. Go to a movie; enjoy a meal; watch sports; exercise; listen to music; take a weekend away; read a book; escape. She will still be there when you return to confront her reality.
Victor Frankel was a famous psychologist, who survived the concentration camps. Among his great teachings was that the Nazis could take everything away from him, except his capacity to choose how to respond. Katrina and her aftermath destroyed property and life as we knew it, but it is ultimately up to us to determine how we will react and cope. She can disrupt us, but she does not have to transform us, force us away from the lives and community we hold dear.
As we gather on this Shabbat, celebrating the first Bar or Bat Mitzvah in almost seven months, we look back and take stock. We have traveled a long way in that time and endured a great deal of turmoil and suffering. But we also have been blessed with bountiful gifts and support from family, friends and countless anonymous individuals, who touched our lives. We have discovered internal resources that we never knew we possessed. Like our ancestors we hold onto a vision of wholeness as we seek to personally rebuild and return to our Promised Land. May God give us strength as we continue the journey!