There is nothing like a hurricane to make you aware of the fragility of life. Facing the threat of a hurricane during the High Holy Days makes the entire concept of life and death extremely poignant and relevant.
A few days before Hurricane Ian barreled towards my home, I had given lectures explaining Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to my retirement community here in St Petersburg, Florida. As I faced the dangers of the impending storm, details of the observance of the High Holy Days were very much on my mind. In essence, we ask for forgiveness, and request that we be written and sealed in the Book of Life for one more year.
On Friday September 23rd, 2022, Hurricane Ian strengthened, and forecasters predicted that it would become a Category Four Hurricane, which has the potential of being extremely destructive. Models were showing it turning towards the West coast of Florida, with Tampa Bay as the bullseye for the storm.
We live two blocks from the waters of Tampa Bay. Even though our home is on slightly higher ground, it was obvious that we would probably lose power, and a high storm surge might well inundate our home, not to mention the damage from high winds and heavy rain.
My husband and I made arrangements to evacuate to a hotel further inland on high ground if we needed to leave our home. We chose a place with rooms that opened into inside corridors so that we would not have to step out into the storm if we wanted to leave our room. Knowing that all restaurants and stores would close for the duration of the storm and that we would have to supply our own food for several days, we also chose a place with a refrigerator and microwave. This would only be effective if we did not lose power at the hotel.
I had planned a Rosh Hashanah dinner for ten close friends for Erev second day Rosh Hashanah. My fridge and freezer were full of food we could take with us to the hotel. I called my guests, and postponed the dinner, to be rescheduled for a later date.
Sunday evening, September 25th was Erev Rosh Hashanah. By this time, we had our suitcases packed in case we needed to evacuate. We went to synagogue, and this year, after two years of the Covid “plague” plus the impending storm, the sound of the Shofar and Avinu Malkeinu really spoke to me. During synagogue services on Monday, I could not help but dwell on the concept of “who shall live and who shall die.”
And then came the bombshell announcements. Our community was given orders by the local municipality to evacuate. Synagogue services for second day Rosh Hashanah would be cancelled so that everyone could make preparations and find safety before the impending storm.
Early on Tuesday morning, September 26th, we evacuated to our hotel. Later that day, we learned that Hurricane Ian had gone ashore in Florida as a Category Four Hurricane 100 miles south of us, at Fort Myers.
For three days we sat glued to our TV in our safe hotel room and watched the destruction and loss of life and livelihood that was the result of the hurricane and came to appreciate how much we had been spared. What happened in Fort Myers could have happened to us. Our hearts go out to all those whose lives have been forever changed.
Lionel and I found ourselves responding to the many messages we received from concerned family, friends and colleagues around the world who reached out to find out if we were safe.
On Friday morning, after the high winds and rain of the hurricane had finally passed, we were able to return home. We found to our relief that we had minimal damage. Lots of broken tree limbs and debris and no air conditioning or internet, but these were just minor inconveniences that were resolved relatively quickly.
Those of us who live in Tampa Bay have felt a deep need to give thanks for being spared the worst of the storm. For the Jewish community, Sukkot, the Jewish festival of thanksgiving that falls only five days after Yom Kippur, became our opportunity to give thanks. As I ate a meal with friends in a fragile sukkah open to the elements, I could not help but appreciate the fragility of life and just how fortunate we were. We had been blessed to be sheltered from this storm.
We all seek help as we face storms in our lives; be they a war, a hurricane or a health crisis such as those that the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel deals with every day.
This need is expressed in the Hashkiveinu prayer. We ask God to spread his sheltering peace on us, and on all his people Israel and Jerusalem. Having faced the storm, this prayer has become very meaningful to me.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ הַפּוֹרֵשׂ סֻכַּת שָׁלוֹם עָלֵינוּ
וְעַל כָּל עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל יְרוּשָׁלָיִם