Change in plans
Susan Palwick's "Brief Visits"

Preparing for the hurricane

When one lives inland, as we do, it feels strange to be preparing for a hurricane.

Last year, when Hurricane Irene appeared, we'd already been planning a summer party for that late-August weekend. We went ahead and threw the party; why not, right? We live on a mountaintop, which should be relatively safe from flooding -- and why not have friends nearby as we rode out the storm? Ethan tarped our most vulnerable windows and screwed plywood down. We cooked huge bowls of noodles and wheatberry tabouli, foods which can be eaten safely and tastily even if there is no power. And then we fired up our outdoor wood-fired hot tub and sat outside in the glorious steaming water as the rain began to fall.

We were blessed. We came through that storm unscathed. We didn't even lose power. But others in our neck of the woods were not so fortunate. The Spruces trailer park in Williamstown, home to most of that town's elderly who are living on fixed incomes, flooded and some 200 people became homeless. Roads and bridges washed out. Just north of us, in Vermont, there was tremendous devastation.

Now everyone in New England is battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. The forecasts are fairly alarming. Here at our house we've secured a tarp over the top of our ger, flattened our folding deck chairs, moved outdoor lanterns inside. I've cooked all the perishables I can, trying to make foods which will be relatively safe to eat at room temperature if we lose power, which I assume we probably will -- high winds plus trees which still retain some fall foliage means power lines will definitely come down. I've poured several pitchers of water, because losing power means losing our well pump. I've made two pots of coffee. I'm trying to do laundry while there's still power to do laundry with.

My shul has canceled Hebrew school for today (all of the public schools in our area have closed, and Drew's preschool will close at noon) and I've put out a message encouraging members to prepare for the storm and to check in with each other, especially with those who are older, living alone, and/or especially vulnerable.

I'm caught between the inclination to refresh and incessantly (while I still have internet and power) and the awareness that keeping an eye on the storm's movement doesn't actually help me or anyone I might be worried about who lives in its path. I think we're all a little bit manic today, a little bit on-edge, knowing that something potentially terrible is coming and powerless to stop it or to truly predict what the future holds.

My colleague Rabbi Arthur Segal reminded me yesterday (on a Jewish Renewal email list to which I belong) that early in the mishna -- tractate Brakhot, Blessings -- we learn that when we witness a strong storm, we should pray "Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose power fills the world." And for mild storms, we say: "Blessed are You, our God, who made all of creation." He continues:

And the sages in the Gemara of Talmud Yerushalmi go further and say that haShem would take a strong wind and lessen its force as it passes through mountains and hills, because God made wind, His breath, to make life, not take life.

(He offers more meditation on these themes in a post on his blog.)

I've always loved the fact that our tradition instructs us to offer blessings even at moments of difficulty and fear. It would be easy to respond to the might of a hurricane with curses, but the sages of the mishna argued otherwise. Strong winds and driving rain can be a reminder that there is a power in the world greater than we. Hurricanes are awesome in the original sense of the word -- awe-some, awe-ful, awe-inspiring; reminders of the awe we experience when we contemplate the infinity of the God Who creates them.

Of course, a storm like this one may draw forth other responses beyond blessing. My friend and colleague Rabbi Arthur Waskow has noted tha:

This is a storm unlike any we've seen before because the earth is doing things it has never done before. The water along the Atlantic coast is 5 degrees hotter than usual, super-charging Sandy's rainfall, and drawing the strength of the storm further north. Already too-high tides will be pushed dangerously higher by this storm.

Despite these rapid changes, our politicians have dropped climate from their agenda. So, in addition to preparing to stay safe, let's prepare to connect the dots between this storm and the over-burning of fossil fuels. We need to put climate change back front and center in the public conversation.

I appreciate his reminder that the ferocity of the weather conditions we are learning to take for granted has a great deal to do with the choices we have made about how to live on this earth. The sages of our tradition instruct us to offer blessings even when faced with a mighty storm -- but I doubt they could have pictured a future paradigm in which we understand ourselves to be co-creators of our planet's climate conditions, as many of us now do. A storm like this one is a reminder of God's infinite and awe-some power -- and also of our own role in creating a planetary system where ice is melting, currents are changing, and a summer of searing drought is followed by wind and rain we can't help but fear.

May we all be safe. May we all be dry and comfortable. May no one lose power; or, when we do, may we have enough to eat, a roof which keeps us dry, the companionship of family and friends. May no one else die because of this storm. And when we reach the other side, may we all take whatever steps we can to mend what is broken and to help those in need.