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Doing Teshuvah in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

We rabbis really have an easy task preparing sermons for the High Holidays. There is never a lack of news for us to talk about. Significant events always seems to occur in the weeks, days and hours leading up to the High Holidays. The most dramatic example (next to the Yom Kippur war) was in the year 2001, when the 9/11 attacks took place exactly one week before Rosh Hashanah. Americans went to synagogue that year still dazed and not sure what hit them. As one of my colleagues quipped, “If you listened very carefully on September 12th at midnight, you could hear a gigantic rip, as every rabbi in the United States was simultaneously tearing up his or her prepared sermon.”

Thus, the only advice rabbis need to heed is this: be sure not to prepare any sermons more than a few days in advance. But, being the intrepid rabbi that I am, I am preparing these remarks 10 days before Rosh Hashanah. Now I know I am in grave danger of having to tear them up, since Rita is barreling in the Gulf, but I like my chances that my words will still be relevant.

I want to speak to you this evening, as we usher in the year 5766 about a shock to our country that I think will be just as transformative as 9/11. I watched the television coverage of hurricane Katrina shouting aloud: “This is America. This can’t be happening here.” I am not exaggerating when I say that my sense of shock nearly equaled that of 9/11. All I could think was: “We are the United States of America. We are the greatest nation in the world.” Why, then are people standing on their rooftops with signs begging “Help Us” and no one is coming to their aid? Why is the government declaring that they aren’t sure what is happening, when we can see it live on television 24 hours a day?

It was different with the tsunami victims. We were horrified at the natural disaster, but we weren’t shocked at the sight of people running frantically, of families wrested from each other’s arms, of the weak and injured being abandoned. That’s what happens in 3rd world countries, after all, isn’t it? We sent money to Oxfam, and the Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity, to the point where at least one organization, Doctors without Borders, asked us to stop our donations. They couldn’t cope with all of the money coming in. On New Year’s day, I even organized a “Polar bear” swim on Magnolia Beach, donations going to the tsunami victims. We had some half dozen swimmers, and we raised over $500. But that is as it should be, isn’t it? The greatest country in the world helping the poorest people on this globe.

Katrina was different. We can all send in money to the victims. I hope we all have, and I entreat you to continue in your generosity. But Katrina is different. Katrina exposed an underclass in our country that shocked, embarrassed and shamed us. While we are constantly reminded of the poverty in countries far away, we had forgotten the wrenching poverty that exists right here in our own country. Hurricane Katrina exposed the great neediness and racism that remains in our country. We chose to forget the people who live on the outskirts of hope. The people for whom there are no options. The people who can’t decide whether or not to evacuate because they have no means of transportation, or because they are handicapped, or because they live in nursing homes where their caretakers callously abandoned them.

We read in Genesis 7:11, in a description of the great Flood in the days of Noah: “All the wellsprings of the great deep burst. And the casements of the heavens were opened.” But in New Orleans, the order was reversed. First it was the casements of the heavens that were opened, and only then did the wellsprings of the great deep burst. “A flood of Biblical proportions” many people called the surging waters of Lake Ponchartrain. But the truth – even the poetic truth – is quite different. This was very much a flood of characteristic American proportions and of American habits.

The destruction wrought by the flood waters of Katrina was about negligence over many years. It was about race and it was about poverty. We talk a lot about humans and God being partners in creation. Katrina demonstrated that we can also be partners in destruction.

New Orleans is America’s largest port. It was and is high on the list of prospective terrorist targets. One might have supposed that substantial supplies would have been pre-positioned nearby to be used in case of a horrific attack. Well, there was a horrific attack --the product of nature’s whims rather than human malice. And, although there had been warning enough to encourage evacuation of the city, there was no plan for evacuating the sick, the elderly, and those who had no means of leaving, and no place to go. There was no milk and no insulin. And no ice, although there seems to have been plenty of ice in Gloucester that was intended for the Gulf Region. In short, there was no plan. Hence, in the aftermath of the flooding there was chaos and looting just as there had been when American troops entered Baghdad. What manner of public servants ignore the warnings of the levees’ weaknesses, ignore the meanings and consequences of poverty, ignore the lessons of proximate history?

Seventy percent of the people of New Orleans are black. Until the flood, they were largely invisible. Now they disturb our waking hours. Newscasters commented that after 9/11 many heroes came to the fore – the mayor, the governor, the president, the brave firemen and policemen who gave their lives. The passengers on United Flight 93 that wrestled the plane to the ground rather than allow it to reach its intended target of the White House or the Senate. They opine that one difference between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina is that during Hurricane Katrina there were no heroes.

I disagree. I believe that there were heroes, and these heroes were the men and women of the press corps, the photographers, the reporters, the commentators who brought us the indelible images of the young and the old, the black and the white, the able and the disabled. Brought us the harrowing images that can never be erased from our psyches, the images that disturb us when we are awake, and disrupt us from our sleep. Images of those who we preferred to forget were there. Those with whom we never speak who we never encounter unless they clean our hotel rooms or clear our restaurant tables. These are the people who we like to think of as invisible. Well, they are not invisible any more. We have seen the enemy and it is us. We can no longer pretend that this underclass doesn’t exist. They have come to full view on our television screens and now they are our issue. Now they can no longer be appeased with a five dollar tip or even a $100 donation to the Red Cross.

The great danger here is that if we wait a month or two the victims of Katrina will be gone, out of sight, out of mind. This nation is not prepared to deal with issues of poverty, much less the intersection of poverty and race. We seem to have other priorities.

The rallying cry of Jews everywhere has been “Do not Forget.” We are urged not to forget that we were slaves in Egypt, so that we will never enslave others. We are urged never to forget what the Amalekites did to us when we left Egypt, how they met the Israelites along the way and attacked the weak members of the nation at the back of the pack. Simon Weisenthal, of blessed memory, who died this month, assured that we do not forget the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Do not forget and “Never Again” are familiar refrains to the Jewish people.

Now we must take it upon ourselves to see that we and those around us do not forget the images we saw of the huddled masses yearning to be what? Fed? Housed? Or simply, noticed. Now we are commanded to bring those who need special attention into our midst. No one is to be left outside of the tent. No one.

The attacks of 9/11 triggered the war on Terrorism. Katrina should re invigorate the all but forgotten war on poverty declared by Lyndon Johnson. If it takes a massive flood to help us repent of our ways, then so be it. We can hardly refrain from comparisons between Katrina and the Great Flood in the days of Noah. In biblical times we read that God destroyed the world because it was evil. And then God repented of this harsh punishment, and with the rainbow, apologized for annihilating the world. God promised never to obliterate the world again. God was in effect doing T’shuvah, asking for forgiveness. If God can grow and develop along with creation, then certainly we humans can do as much. In order to really do T’shuvah this year, in order to really repent, we all need to acknowledge our roles in creating a society that allowed Katrina to do so much damage.

We must acknowledge our role in allowing the victims of Katrina to be rendered invisible, and we must assure that they remain eternally and enduringly visible. We can only hope and pray that Katrina becomes a transformative event. We can only hope and pray that we never forget the misery of it all. The sorrow, the shame, the dead by water and the dead by neglect. We can only hope and pray that we open our collective hearts to them -- and our eyes and our minds.

And we must open our memories to them. We must resolve at this holy time of the New Year 5766 to remember all who are less fortunate. We must be determined not to forget. As Rabbi Tarfon says in the Mishnah: “The day is short and the work is great.” So, now is the time for all of us to undertake the task of being God’s partner in bringing healing and perfection to the world.

There is a saying in the Ethics of the Fathers” which has become one of my personal Mantras.

“Lo Alecka ham’lacha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorine l’hibatel mimenah”

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to desist from beginning to undertake it. We can not solve all of the problems that Katrina has brought to light. But we can not be discouraged by the enormity of the task. We must begin the important work of Tikkun Olam ­repairing and perfecting the world.

As we are about to hear the Shofar blasts, may they impel us toward a determination to “Never Forget” what we saw, and to find ways to remedy what shocked, shamed, and dishonored us as Americans and as human beings.

Other sermons from Rabbi Judy
Kol Nidre: 5767A People Apart or a Part of the People?
Reconstructionist Judaism: So Much More than "Cultural"
Cultural Jew - 5765 Rosh Hashanah Evening Sermon
Doing Teshuvah in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina