When Life Imitates Liturgy: What the Queens Tornado Teaches About Life

In the early evening of September 16, the day before Yom Kippur, my neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, here in the city of New York, was hit by a tornado. No one could remember the last time that had happened, but no one who experienced it this time around- myself very much included- will ever forget it. It was a terrifying experience, and it wreaked extensive damage. Most homes, including my own, had roof damage from falling trees, cars were sliced in half by them, power and cable lines were downed (some still are), and in general, it caused great distress.

Although getting into it was a bit of a challenge, my synagogue escaped serious damage, and the sukkah attached to it remained standing. Some members of the congregation regarded that as a miracle. I’m not so sure of that. If God really had miracles in his/her pocket to dispense, I have some ideas that are bigger than our synagogue’s roof. But we were, of course, grateful to have been spared serious damage to the synagogue building, as well as any serious injuries to members of our community.

To say that going into Kol Nidre night barely a day after this storm was existentially jarring would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Our entire community had been, both literally and figuratively, shaken to the core. In fact, we recited the Birkat Hagomel together after the Kol Nidre, the prayer for those who have undergone a life-threatening experience.

It was hard to avoid the fact that essentially all the liturgy of the High Holidays focuses in on the fragility of human life, and how, as the liturgical poet wrote, we are but clay in the hands of the potter, or even more appropriately, like glass in the hands of the glazier. We are easily cast aside, melted down, or just discarded. The radical fragility of life itself and all that matters most to us is the lurking realization that gives enormous power to the High Holiday liturgy. Surrounded as we were by the detritus of this rare tornado that made even getting to synagogue a challenge, our annual encounter with the Yom Kippur liturgy took on even greater force.

Many times during the long day of Yom Kippur, I thought to myself how much better a world it would be if we humans could retain a greater sensitivity to the fragility of our blessings beyond the High Holiday period, and even more, if we could come to that sensitivity without being terrified by an extraordinary event like a tornado. Human nature being what it is, we don’t usually see the world through the rose colored lenses of those threatened, nor would we necessarily be happier if we did.

But we surely would appreciate the everyday blessings in our lives much more. And when you come right down to it, that’s exactly what religion wants us to do. Appreciate what we take for granted. Give thanks for what we are essentially gifted with. Acknowledge that life itself is precious, and finite. Sounds like a saner version of religion to me than a lot of what passes for it these days…

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.