Tachanun: prayers of penitence
Celebrating dialogue

On Katrina

I wasn't initially going to post about the hurricane; I wasn't sure I had anything useful to add to the conversation. But in a comment on a post by RenReb, earlier today, I wrote:

All I can do, right now, is pray -- for the refugees, that their lives be rebuilt speedily; for the mourners, that they find comfort; for the rest of us, that we find the strength we need to continue to see holiness in the world despite the suffering to which we are bearing witness.

and writing that comment made me realize that I have something to say after all. I don't have good answers to the question of theodicy. The hurricane has reminded me, along with millions of others, that there is tremendous suffering in the world, and I don't know how to reconcile that with my understanding of God. Our challenge now, as I see it -- and arguably this is always our challenge, though it's easy to forget -- is to continue to do what we can to repair the broken world, despite all the things we don't understand and despite the immensity of the work ahead.

The two Katrina blog posts that have resonated the most for me this week are Naomi Chana's On Believing ("Another disaster, another wave of toxic theology -- to borrow one overused metaphor from the newcasters, it's a veritable gumbo of painfully inadequate theodicy, silly soteriology, and back-door blasphemy") and Alex Steffen's call to action New Orleans: Everything Has Changed:

We aren't trying to build a bright green future because we have nothing else to do. We aren't scrambling to reinvent our industrial civilization because we're bored. We aren't working for a more just global economy for kicks. We aren't fighting for democracy and human rights and good global governance in order to have something to talk about at parties. We aren't ringing the alarm sirens over global warming because we like the way they sound.

We're doing all these things because the future of our planet is at stake. People's lives are at stake, millions of them.

Elsewhere in the post, Alex writes, "We can change the world. But the time to act is now." I have to believe that he is right.

It's Elul: teshuvah season, the time of year when Jews focus on who we are and who we want to be, how we may have missed the mark in the year now ending and how to align ourselves with holiness in the year to come. Part of my teshuvah is embracing both the obligation to face the world as it is, and the obligation to do what I can to improve it. That could mean donating money, or donating time to something like the Katrina People Finder project which aims to combine the dozens of missing/found people sites into one searchable database; it could mean praying; it could mean working here in my own community, even though I'm hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast, because people here are needy too; it could mean working to improve the environment, or the quality of life around the world; it could mean all of those. What's important, I think, is that we each do what we can, whatever that is.

If on Yom Kippur I decide to give God a stern talking-to about the suffering we've witnessed in the past year, that's legitimate; Judaism has a long tradition of arguing with God, from Abraham to Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, the Hasidic rebbe who  is said to have held a trial at which God was the absentee defendant, accused of having inflicted undeserved suffering on humanity. But in order to have that conversation, I need to uphold my end of the bargain, which means doing what I can, and continuing to hope.

As it is written in Pirkei Avot, (the quote gets overused, yeah, but it's right):

It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.


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