Jonathan Muskat

From Charlottesville to Houston: Focus on Relationships Not on Ideology

There are so many dimensions through which we become fully engaged with the disaster in Houston. The need for Chesed, for Tefilla, for Emunah, the theological questions of why God allowed this to happen; the list goes on and on.  I have found myself thinking about this disaster from another perspective, namely, the close proximity of this tragedy to the recent tragedy in Charlottesville.  Whereas the incident in Charlottesville highlighted divisions in our country that have become palpable and, frankly, so ugly, the response to the hurricane has shown our capacity for just the opposite of that. In the wake of this devastating Hurricane, heroic stories have emerged and acts of unity, achdut, have been on full display.  Stories like that of Dr. Stephen Kimmel, a pediatric surgeon, who was told by the local hospital that a 16 year old patient of his needed emergency surgery. Despite his own home beginning to flood, he left his family and started driving to the hospital. Along the way, he had to stop because of rising waters. He was rescued by two volunteer firemen and the three of them canoed as close as they could to the hospital. He walked the last mile with water up to his waist. He walked into the hospital drenched, changed into his scrubs, and saved the teen’s life.

In the rescue efforts in Houston, no distinction has made between religion, race or political party.  We are one.  There has been a feeling of unity and it reminds me of a comment by the Ramban in last week’s parsha.  The Ramban mentions that the Torah refers to the victim of a lost object as “achicha,” your brother, in contrast to the description in Parshat Mishpatim, when he is called “oyivcha,” your enemy.  The Ramban notes that here the Torah calls him a brother so that “ta’aseh imo ken uzchor ha’achvah v’tishkach hasin’ah,” you will remember the brotherhood and forget the hatred.  Even if the victim is not a friend, there is an additional requirement here to treat the individual like family, like a brother.  Perhaps in Parshat Mishpatim, when Bnei Yisrael are commanded to return a lost object in the desert, there is a requirement to assist, but now, as they are being commanded as they are about to enter Eretz Yisrael as a nation with a land, perhaps the message is that if you want a nation with a land to function effectively, then everyone must be treated like a brother, like a sister, like a family member.

Today, the question that we all need to ask ourselves is how do we move from the nation’s response in Charlottesville to the nation’s response in Houston? How do we keep that kindred spirit that we feel towards our fellow Americans not just in a time of crisis, but how do we allow this feeling to spill over even after this calamity?  Maybe the month of Elul is the answer. The month of Elul is all about return, as the phrase for which it is an acrynom suggests, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am for My beloved and My beloved is for me.  The month of Elul is all about returning and repairing the relationship with God and it’s about realizing that relationships are ultimately what’s most important, more important than particulars in ideology.

We can get angry at God, perhaps even justifiably, when we suffer a tragedy. And we can feel distant from God when we are experiencing loss.  But Elul is a time of ani l’dodi v’dodi li. It’s a time when we put aside our feelings of anger and distance and count our blessings to be part of a nation of God, to be chosen to be ambassadors of God’s special mission. 

It is a time when we return to God, and to each other.

The same is true with our fellow man. Relationships suffer differences, and unfortunate words are spoken.  Anger may lead us to say and do things that create distance from each other, but Elul is a time for rebuilding.  It is the task of Elul to focus on that which unites us, and not that which divides us.

Let us spend this Elul season focusing more on relationships and less on ideology. Let us put our greatest efforts toward rebuilding, and not toward breaking one another down. And may we emerge from the tragedy in Houston, and this Elul season, as one people, stronger together.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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