Light amidst Darkness – Lessons from Hurricane Irma

As I sit in my newly illuminated home, so many thoughts run through my head. It’s been a chaotic, emotionally draining, frenzied and at times terrifying week. From the moment the threat of hurricane Irma became real; my life, along with millions of others around the state, became surreal. I live in Florida, but smack inland in Gainesville, north-central and about 80 miles to our closest beach, so hurricanes never seemed to be a huge threat.

However, after waiting in long lines for gas, spending hours stocking up on water and just generally observing the anxiety in this city, true panic took on a new meaning. In a very small microcosmic way, I was able to empathize with those who live in parts of the world or whose heart-rending life circumstances make the very struggle for food, water, and security a daily part of their lives. It gave me profound gratitude for the small things we take for granted every day. How many bottles of water do I drink without thinking twice? How many times do I walk outside without worry of physical harm? Do I ever really appreciate what I’m given and what I have? And yet, the true eye-opening experience, appreciation and life lessons were soon to come.

Being that we are located on the I75, directly between Miami & Atlanta, we began receiving phone calls on Tuesday, days before the hurricane was expected to hit. Expecting a catastrophe and heeding grave warnings to leave, people did just that; they got into their vehicles and started driving in the only direction possible – north. We fielded hundreds of phone calls and requests (as did Chabad Centers all along the ‘escape route’) from exhausted and stranded travelers who had sat in parking lot like conditions on the highway for many hours and needed beds, fuel, kosher food etc. We were not nearly able to accommodate everyone, but with the assistance of students and united community; we served meals, hosted and maxed out our space to the best of our ability. Families showed up at sundown before Shabbat and we happily gave them the floor space still left along with blankets, air mattresses etc. Being that we live in a college town, many parents came up to weather (no pun intended!) the storm with their children and we hosted a joyous and exhilarating Shabbat weekend with over 600 guests. On Sunday, we hunkered down with many students and families throughout the day and night as the rain and winds raged and roared. People were in good spirits and upbeat camaraderie, as everyone ate snacks and played games even as a huge yellow and green light filled the sky and the building went dark.

Our reliance on electricity is never as obvious as when we lose it and our personal need and dependence on others would soon become obvious, as well. As the reality of our electricity-less building started to hit us, we realized that we had an emergency. We didn’t have a generator and there was not a drop of gas to be found for hundreds of miles. Within minutes of social media posts and word of mouth, we had a generator, electricians ready to install it and then people started bringing canisters of gas. We had so many generous offers of cars from which we could take gas (which apparently can’t be done anymore) that if I was to list their owners, it would take up this whole page. Community members, students, fraternities, total strangers and so many offered help, kindness, and love in so many ways.

In the big picture of life and for our own psyche, it feels better and makes us happier to give rather than take. However, when we need the help from others and inevitably we ALL do (rich, poor, all races and ethnicities), there’s a certain appreciation that is otherwise unattainable, and we are able to view the world in a mind-altering, but positive and optimistic way. Circumstances around the world and current events can be depressing and often seem dark, difficult and cruel. Yet, in the literal dark, the light shone bright and proved again that the world we live in is actually a big beautiful garden, and although thorns try to block the roses, their energy and vibrant colors will always remain the true quintessence of the garden for they are the human, but G-dly soul. And as it’s written in Hayom Yom* – “A soul may descend to this world and live seventy or eighty years, just in order to do another a material favor, and certainly a spiritual one.”

We are currently just days away from Rosh Hashanah, in the Jewish month of Elul, when we prepare for the High Holidays. It’s a month of introspection, prayer, good deeds and positive commitments for the coming year. It’s a time, we are taught when G-d is like a King in the field, more open than ever to our requests, prayers, and entreaties.

In that spirit, I bring another quote from Hayom Yom emphasizing what our priorities should be. “For helping someone in his livelihood…all the gates to the Heavenly Chambers are open for him…One should really know the route to the Heavenly Chambers, but actually, it is not crucial. You only need the main thing – to help another wholeheartedly, with sensitivity, to take pleasure in doing a kindness to another.”

This past week I’ve observed this as people went out of their way, gave of their time, resources and energy with an open heart and a smile to others who were in need. This is not even including first responders, doctors and those who braved the storm to tend to, care and even save others, often putting their lives in danger. So, if this is what I’ve seen and deduced from my limited human point of view, I’m sure G-d has the full picture, a picture of humanity at its kindest, finest and best and will grant a happy, healthy, sweet New Year to the entire world, with no more suffering and pain for anyone. Amen!

*Hayom Yom, Compiled by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, in 1942, upon the instructions of his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe, Hayom Yom is an anthology of Chasidic aphorisms and customs arranged according to the days of the year. It has since become a beloved classic work and a source of daily inspiration.

About the Author
Chanie Goldman lives with her husband and eight children in Gainesville, Fl. They co-direct the Tabacinic Lubavitch-Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of Florida. Chanie is a teacher and mentor to thousands. She leads trips to Israel and writes articles for various Jewish publications and is a sought after inspirational speaker.
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