Jonathan Muskat

The Religious Response to the Crisis in Houston: Check Your Mezuzot?

Our hearts go out to the community in Houston, which has suffered unprecedented flooding from Hurricane Harvey.  The videos showing the devastation and destruction are simply heart wrenching.  These scenes remind me of the catastrophe of Superstorm Sandy that our Oceanside community experienced only a few years ago, but I fear that the destruction and casualties from Hurricane Harvey will eclipse that which occurred in Superstorm Sandy.  As religious Jews, we try to react to these crises from a theological perspective, and many of us are familiar with the Gemara in Berachot that states that if a person sees that he is suffering from calamities, “yefashfesh b’maa’sav” – he should examine his deeds.  Does that mean that we should try to figure out why certain communities or certain areas were hit by a storm or hurricane?  Or that the storm was caused by some sin that a particular community committed?  Does this mean that the Houston community should start checking their mezuzot?

I think not.  Because the only other time that the Talmud uses the expression of “yefashfesh b’maa’sav,” of examining one’s deeds, is in Masechet Eruvin where the Gemara discusses a philosophical debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel as to whether it would have been better that man should have never been born in the first place.  After a two and half year discussion, the Sages agreed that it was better that man should have never been born but now that he was born, yefashpesh b’maasav – he should examine his deeds.  In this context, there is just a mandate for every person to constantly examine his deeds and try to perfect himself, unrelated to a particular sin.  Perhaps then, when the Talmud asserts that we should examine our deeds when we experience pain and suffering, it doesn’t mean that we should examine our deeds because our sins created the suffering; rather, the suffering creates new opportunities for us to examine our deeds.  I remember after Superstorm Sandy thinking that two of the primary messages that we are constantly being taught as Jews are the message of faith and the message of chesed, of philanthropy.  The devastation caused by the superstorm created an opportunity for some of us who suffered to actualize the value of faith and for others who weren’t affected by the superstorm to actualize the value of chesed.  Perhaps the crisis in Houston has created similar opportunities for us.

Rav Soloveitchik developed a philosophical distinction between fate and destiny that allowed him to work with non-religious Zionists.  He explained that Jews have historically been linked by two distinct covenants.  One is brit yiud, the covenant of destiny, when we are bound by our commitment to halakha.  The other is brit goral, the covenant of fate, when we are bound by the fact that we were chosen to live a sacred mission.  All those who live in this brit goral, whether observant or not, share the same fate of persecution and oppression, even if they do not live in accordance with halakha.  Applying Rav Soloveitchik’s model to the current crisis, we can conclude that whereas fate is uncontrollable, as we are passive and at times helpless to our fate, destiny can be directed, as we can control how we shape our lives in response to our challenges by our commitment to purpose and meaning.  Destiny signifies that we have a purpose, that even though we are devastated by what has occurred to our brethren in Houston, it is not simply by chance and meaningless, but it is an opportunity to strengthen our life-long values of faith and chesed.  Specifically, now is an opportunity for religious Jews across the country to donate to funds designed to help the Houston community, whether through the Jewish Federation, the Orthodox Union or your local synagogue.  We will face this crisis as a community bound by fate and destiny, strengthened and not weakened by it.  May the community in Houston know no more hardship, and may our commitment to one another strengthen all of us as we face the challenged that lie ahead.

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