Haiti: Staring at Disaster

In the bad old days of the second intifada, when it seemed like every other day provided another incidence of a bomb blowing up somewhere in Israel with predictably horrific results, I remember hearing for the first time the concept that Israelis called a mega-pigu’a.

A pigu’a is the term they use for a terrorist attack. A mega-pigu’a

is exactly what it sounds like; an attack that is so vast and damaging in its scope as to be catastrophic. The thinking was that, as awful as the periodic bombings were, they could be “tolerated,” as it were- but not so a mega-pigu’a.

Here in New York, where we did not suffer the horrors of periodic terrorist attacks, we did, however, endure the mega-pigu’a of September 11. We learned the hard way what an intolerable attack looks and feels like.

With what has transpired in Haiti this week, it feels once again as if nature has, as it were, launched a mega-pigu’a of its own against innocent non-combatants. Like the awful tsunami in Banda Aceh just a few years ago, when hundreds of thousands of civilians were literally washed away in a terrifying moment, the earthquake in Haiti lasted all of about forty seconds. It was over in literally less than a minute. But with substandard building codes and generally unsafe and unsanitary conditions, forty seconds was all it took to destroy a capital city and its surrounding provinces, and kill who knows how many people. As of this moment, the estimates I’ve heard vary widely. But it seems likely that at least fifty thousand people were killed in those forty seconds, and in all probability, many, many more.

Setting aside the building codes issue for the moment, the very unsettling truth is that there is little in life that is certain. The older we get and the longer we live, the more we are exposed not only to the periodic mega-pigu’a type events of this past week, but also to those law-of-averages kind of attacks that just seem to encroach on us more than we care to think about. Friends and loved ones get sick and die- healthy one day, sick and terminal the next. Where did it come from? People who had the same job for what seemed like forever get a pick slip they never saw coming. Marriages that seemed stable come apart.

And through it all we’re left to wonder, what can we count on?

As a religious person, as much as I hate to say this, the answer, I think, is…. Nothing. The truth is that we dodge a thousand bullets a day. Every day that we get through, from start to finish, without suffering some kind of life-altering assault on what is most precious to us is, in its own way, a miracle. The bad things are all out there, all the time, all around us. We tend to be like Mr. Magoo, walking around blind to the chaos all around.

For me, the true spiritual sensitivity comes from being the opposite of oblivious. We are at our most spiritual when we are acutely aware of the dangers all around, and respond by doing what spiritual people do- saying thank you, early and often.

When the rabbis decided that we are obligated to recite one hundred blessings every day, they were right on target. Gratitude for that which we take for granted is the best antidote to existential angst. We can’t control the mega-pigua that nature can bring against us and our world. But we can be grateful for- and celebrate- every day that is chaos-free.

This week reminds us how important a sensitivity that is…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.