Sodom and Gomorrah, Hurricane Sandy, and God



by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

This week, in parashat Vayeira, God decides to punish the wicked, declaring, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” And Avraham argues, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”

The two angels who had recently visited Avraham go to Sodom. They’ve hardly arrived when men swarm Lot’s house and demand, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.”

Lot says, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong.” So far, so good. But then he becomes abhorrent in our eyes when he offers his two daughters instead.

This is the sin of these two infamous places. The next day the towns are destroyed.

This is one way we used to understand destruction raining down from the sky, and our responsibility for that destruction. People make evil choices, and God metes out punishment. In this story, all those who suffer are wicked. Avraham cannot find even the single minyan of righteous souls whose presence would have caused God to spare the towns.

This week too, destruction has rained down from the sky. Not sulfurous fire, but torrential rains and hurricane-force winds.

Here in the Berkshires, Hurricane Sandy toppled trees, leaving thousands without power. Many of us had to keep our kids home from school, brush our teeth with bottled water, eat all the ice cream in our freezers before it spoiled. We’re the lucky ones.

The damage in New York and Atlantic City beggars belief. You’ve probably seen the same photos I have: water flooding subway tunnels, emergency vehicles submerged by the seas, buildings washed away or destroyed by fire.

There are those who interpret storms like this as the wrath of God striking down the wicked: the gamblers of Atlantic City, the queer community in New York. This is toxic theology, and when it is aimed at those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender it is as destructive to hearts and souls as the storm is to property.

What created Hurricane Sandy? A set of systemic causes, a welter of economic and environmental choices, made over time by wealthy nations and corporations. The water along the Atlantic coast this year is 5 degrees higher than average, which increases the likelihood of “superstorms” like Sandy. And yet climate change wasn’t mentioned at all in this year’s presidential debates.

A storm like this one is a reminder of God’s infinite and awesome 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.

Our paradigm has shifted. We reject the theology which holds that God sends disasters to punish us. But we can still find meaning in the confluence of this storm and this week’s parsha.

The sin of Sodom was brutalization of the powerless. None of us would condone those acts, but we’re part of a global system in which people with power make economic and environmental choices which impact the vulnerable. Developed countries, and the wealthy worldwide, use more than our share of earth’s resources; developing countries, and the poor worldwide, bear more than their share of destruction.

Hurricane Sandy killed 70 people in the Caribbean, destroying 70 percent of the crops in southern Haiti and leaving some 200,000 homeless. And the people of Haiti didn’t necessarily have it easy before the storm hit. Global warming, rising seas, and strengthening storms impact poor countries more than they impact rich ones.

Here’s a small-scale example closer to our home: last year when Tropical Storm Irene struck the Berkshires, it was the residents of the Spruces trailer park in Williamstown – an elder community, mostly living on limited income – who were rendered homeless, not those like me who can afford to live on higher ground.

Jewish tradition calls us to be the hands of God in caring for one another. To feed and clothe the widow and the orphan, those who are powerless. To permit the hungry to glean. On these matters, Torah’s voice rings clear.

And this is a test which the communities of Gomorrah and Sodom fail. Dramatically. Lot is unwilling to give up his two visitors, but he offers his daughters instead – a calculus I cannot imagine.

When and how are we complicit in pushing away the damage which our choices may create? Anyone would agree that it’s wrong to sacrifice one’s daughters to an angry mob, but does it seem okay to allow pollution to flow downriver to someone else’s town, or to allow the poorest to build their homes on flood plains or behind the levees which are in the weakest repair?

The tough news is that we’re all responsible for one another. The good news is that we’re all responsible for one another. There’s always something we can do.

There are an infinity of ways we can care for one another, both globally and locally. We can ensure that we work to heal the devastation of storms like this one not only when they hit our region, but also when they damage lives in nations we may not know. We can support nonprofit organizations which do good work to care for those in need.

One such organization is Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, which organized our county-wide celebration of Shabbat. I know that my congregation depends on Federation to keep our religious school afloat. Federation also delivers meals to homebound seniors, provides social services, and supports the PJ Library, which provides free Jewish books to children. Federation’s work has a great impact, and we can each contribute our time and our dollars to help it continue.

And, of course, we can support our firefighters, policemen, nurses, utility line crews: the unionized workers who every day answer the call of duty to care for those in need.

When God announces plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham asks, “Will You destroy the innocent along with the guilty?”

My generation has grown up with the image of Earth seen from the moon – that beautiful green-blue globe suspended in star-speckled space – imprinted on our hearts. We may not believe in a God Who watches every action and decides who to punish and who to spare. But we know that our world is in our hands, and that our choices impact the innocent along with the guilty, every day.

We have responsibility to the world at large to act justly. To make decisions which will decrease our impact on global climate. To care for those whose lives have been devastated by a storm like Sandy, and to take steps to ensure that those who are vulnerable aren’t in harm’s way.

I don’t believe that God causes hurricanes, but I believe that we can find God in a storm like this one. Reverend Kate Braestrup teaches that we find God in the helping hands of those who cook a meal, bring a casserole, saw through a fallen tree.

God is in the nurses who carried NICU babies down flights of stairs in a New York City hospital, by flashlight, manually inflating small pumps for every breath.

God is in those who work tirelessly to restore power, to care for the sick, to house the homeless. In the face of a disaster like this one, we find God in us.

In coming days may we be willing, and able, to care for those in need here and everywhere.

May we open both our hearts and our wallets to those who are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, rebuilding what has fallen.

And may we find ourselves galvanized in our desire to co-create a world in which everyone is safe, and no one need fear violence, and no one’s home is ever again washed away.

And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH in 2011. Author of 70 Faces (Phoenicia, 2011), a collection of Torah poems, she serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA.

This piece was delivered as a d’var Torah on Friday evening at Shabbat Across the Berkshires, and in modified form on Shabbat morning at Rabbi barenblat’s shul. Originally published at Velveteen Rabbi.

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