Reflections from the natural disasters of the past weeks
Whitianga is a quaint town situated on the Coromandel Peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island. It is about 90 km from Auckland and a popular destination for a summer holiday. Like so much of the North Island, its beauty is only matched by its peacefulness. The Coromandel Peninsula itself is a place of stunning contrasts with rugged and intractable forests, lovely little towns, and special beaches like the well- known Hot Water Beach. In the years I spent in NZ, it was always a joy to take my young family to Whitianga, to drive through the statuesque forests, the majestic trees and riot of fabulous ferns of the Coromandel, to revel in the natural beauty and local attractions.
During the past weeks, with the apocalyptic floods, Cyclone Gabriel, and an earthquake in NZ, Whitianga was cut off from Auckland, as was most of the Coromandel. Our Kiwi neighbours are suffering from a national emergency, the loss of lives and livestock, homes and businesses. They are even creating special mortuaries to cope with the anticipated losses.
I write of the Coromandel and Whitianga because it’s close to home, it’s a place I know, a reality I can grasp and connect to. It’s a lot harder to comprehend the disaster that was taking place at the same time – the huge and horrifying earthquake that has devastated a good part of Turkey and Syria. The heart-breaking scenes there too speak of the relentless and remorseless power of an indifferent Nature. I can’t free my mind from the picture of the baby born under the rubble (named Aya) still connected by her umbilical cord to her dead mother. The juxtaposition of life and death, the very cord of life being coupled to death; the sheer agony and yet wonder of a life emerging from the ruins does strange things to one’s equanimity. It’s an unnerving reminder of the thin line between life and death, how we all balance on a tenuous tightrope. The great German writer, Erich Remarque, in his powerful anti-war novel writes of “just how fragile a handhold, how tenuous a boundary separates us from the darkness – we are little flames, inadequately, sheltered by thin walls from the tempest of dissolution, and insensibility, in which we flicker”.
It’s also so deeply unsettling because life in Melbourne carries on as normal as we fret about our own weird weather or enjoy an acutely beautiful summer day; as we go about the usual frustrations and the business of living; as we celebrate birthdays and weddings, births and Bnei Mitzvah. It’s a sentiment so brilliantly observed by the English poet WH Auden:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”
Our Jewish sages were also acutely aware of how people living alongside one another can experience such different realities – torment in one house, delight next door. The Jewish laws of grieving reflect this awareness, for example, these laws explore if and how a mourner joins a family or community celebration. Of course, people of faith have always appreciated that our lives are so small and humble under the canopy of the stars, how uncertain and unpredictable God’s universe is in our all too human awareness.
Judaism has always taught about how to live in a world that is full of paradox and confusion, how to be at one with both the wonder of life and the woundedness of living. How well it understands that faith and love, compassion and intuition can help us navigate the stormy oceans.
We believe in a benevolent God, but this is also a God who created a world full of power and glory, primeval forces and unfathomable fury. “The voice of the Lord… Strips the forest bare”, says the Psalmist (Psalm 29:9).
The violent forces of nature contain much that is vital and essential; in the depths of the wild, a healthy aggressiveness prevails. We should not despair in the face of the frightening force of nature, but rather find a way of leading God’s voice into the chaos and confusion. And so we bring comfort and compassion to the broken bodies and broken hearts of the victims of natural disasters. Notwithstanding the complicity of human failure in Turkey (like lax compliance of building codes for earthquake zones), one of the abounding points of light in all the horror of these disasters is the power of human beings to respond to strangers, to activate incredible forces to help those in need. The global response with rescue teams from Australia to Israel, China to the USA, has been staggering. The efforts of organisations to raise funds, and of ordinary people to help is awesome. As an example, I love the stories from NZ:
Whitianga is a Māori word for a crossing place. A natural disaster can be a road to despair but also a route to recovery, a crossing point to a better, stronger yet gentler place. This is how the voice of God penetrates and illuminates the darkness or, in the words of our daily evening prayer (Maariv): God rolls away the darkness for the face of the light.
Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) said a man walked 70 km from Putorino to Napier to give rescue workers help with their missions… “He walked to give us a list of people still trapped up in the East Coast.”
‘When Chris Barber yelled out “are you guys the Navy?” to the wetsuit-clad rescuers who’d arrived in an inflatable boat he got perhaps the most Kiwi reply ever uttered: “Nah, we’re just three Māori boys”. These men saved Chris, his wife and two children from the ceiling cavity of their Esk Valley home.’
Wishing you all a good week, a Shavuah Tov, one in which the light of goodness and joyfulness shines through!