David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Parshat Re’eh: Weathering the storm

The Israelites are commanded to all go to Jerusalem three times a year as a way to keep the people from splitting apart
Detail from "Two English Ships Wrecked in a Storm on a Rocky Coast" Willem van de Velde II (1633–1707), National Maritime Museum
Detail from "Two English Ships Wrecked in a Storm on a Rocky Coast" Willem van de Velde II (1633–1707), National Maritime Museum

Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution while in the Galapagos Islands, aboard the HMS Beagle. The reason Darwin was aboard the ship was because its captain, Robert FitzRoy, wanted a companion for the voyage to ensure his mental health. He knew that both his uncle and the previous captain of the Beagle, who he had served under, had committed suicide and wanted a gentleman to accompany him on the long voyage so that he would not succumb to depression (unfortunately, many years later FitzRoy did kill himself).

After they returned from their five-year journey, Darwin spent the next eight years writing about barnacles. Eventually, some 23 years after his return, he also published “On the Origin of Species,” which laid out the theory of evolution and which changed the world.

What about FitzRoy?

After he returned to England, he became a Member of Parliament, then Governor of New Zealand, and eventually appointed as Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade for the Royal Society. It was in the last position that FitzRoy made his greatest contribution to the world. He invented the weather forecast.

Although the connection between barometric pressure and weather was already known, FitzRoy devised several new types of barometers and put one in every port for sailors to consult before setting off to sea. However, after a terrible storm on October 26, 1859, in which about 200 ships were wrecked, including the Royal Charter where some 450 lives were lost, FitzRoy knew he had to do more.

He used the newly invented telegraph to get reports from around the country, and predict the weather, to prevent further loss of life. However, to avoid offending religious groups, who said only prophets could make predictions, he used the word “forecast.”

His forecasts were a huge improvement on anything that had existed before, but, as we all know to this day, forecasting is a difficult business and he also often got it wrong. While he was praised for his work, he also received much criticism for the times he got it wrong. It is possible that it was this public criticism which led to a return of his depression, and ultimately to his suicide. His forecast, published posthumously on his final day? “Thunderstorms over London.”

It is hard to know how many lives were saved by FitzRoy’s weather forecast, but it could easily be hundreds of thousands who avoided death at sea.

So while Darwin changed the world by showing how all life is interconnected, FitzRoy felt the suffering of people and improved the world by saving as many lives as he could.

Darwin and Fitzroy come to mind when reading Parshat Re’eh, the weekly Torah reading which speaks of the importance of both the individuals and the totality.

The Children of Israel are nearing the end of their forty years in the desert. During this time they have all lived together in a single encampment, never far apart, and always united by the Tabernacle in the center of their camp. This Torah reading describes what they must do once they enter the Land of Israel and no longer live in close proximity to one another.

‘You shall not do as everything that we do here today… for until now you have not come to the resting place and the inheritance’ (Devarim 12:8-9)

Once they came into the Land of Israel the Jewish people were distant from one another and far from the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) — the source of spirituality, religion and teaching.

Yet the Torah commands that everyone must come to Jerusalem three times a year. Not only is there a need for the farmers, shepherds and artisans living elsewhere in the country to come and recharge their spiritual batteries, but it is equally important that the leaders in Jerusalem meet and relate to the people who make up the nation. The priests, levites and judges in Jerusalem cannot forget those who work and build the land, provide economic prosperity and security.

So three times a year those who live in the ivory tower of Jerusalem have to meet the people of the nation, those who they may look down upon, considering them uneducated and far from the spirituality of the Temple. It is clear that the goal of the annual pilgrimage is so the nation does not become split into different factions.

I was reminded of this last week walking through the streets of Jerusalem. On one side of the street were thousands of people parading through the city, bringing values and attitudes which are not shared by the majority of the citizens. On the other side of the street was a very small group of people shouting at what they considered a desecration of the holy city.

It is easy to speak of the unity of creation, as Darwin did. It is much more difficult to care about those who are distant from me (geographically, mentally or spiritually), to care deeply about their well-being, as FitzRoy did. That should be our goal.

To quote the New Zealand band DD Smash, “And it’ll be the outlook for Thursday, your guess is good as mine! We’ll be together, yeah, together by design!”

With thanks to “99% Invisible” podcast.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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