Monday, October 23, 2006

Wilma one year later

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy symmetry?
--William Blake, Songs of Experience

A year ago tomorrow morning (which may be today for many of you by the time you read this), I was watching the roof across the street being torn off--not by the hand of men, but by the hand of G-d through the means of a hurricane named Wilma. Wilma was the strongest storm to pass through my neck of the woods in a generation--and back then, my neck of the woods had not been an overdeveloped suburb but a long range of muck, water, sawgrass and alligators that marked the verges of the Everglades. There was, after it passed, not many sukkahs left standing and not an eruv unbroken in a stretch from Palm Beach to Miami Beach; not to mention no electricy for several million people, no gas, no perishable food, no potable water, no traffic lights, whole swathes of office buildings without windows, and most importantly for some fifteen thousand or so households, no roof over their heads. Gradually, most of these problems resolved themselves once the electricity came back on, although some of them--most notably the roofs--still remain in evidence. On October 23, everyone had been extending a guarded sympathy to New Orleans (guarded, because our personal image of Katrina was the juvenile, pre-Gulf Katrina that did little more than tear off tree limbs and blow down screens, and because Florida memory recalls storms, like the Lake Okeechobee hurricane of the 1920s, with even worse death tolls, and because sitting out six hurricanes, as we already had done in 2004-5, ensures a certain fatigue to creep into one's attitude); on October 24, everyone had their own problems, and those of their neighbors, and the problems of Louisiana receded into the background. Everyone knew what a hurricane could do; but the theory was very different from the practice, and the result was a bit of a shock to most people, as was the information, slowly percolating out of the weather bureaus that this was actually not that strong of a hurricane--only reaching the borderline between Category 1 and Category 2 when it came through Southeast Florida. The implication of what another storm might do, if it was as strong as the mature Katrina and came from the east, instead of from the west with the breadth of Florida to dampen it at least a little, was sobering--and, given subsequent events, rather frightening to anyone connected with the insurance industry.

To physically sit through a hurricane is itself a less than pleasant memory: to feel the walls of the house shaking, to hear the roar of the wind (which does actually sound like the roar of a freight train), to see the rain falling not vertically, but parallel to the ground (an effect which we were told later was probably an optical illusion, but even so remains a sight not easily forgotten) and trees bending so far towards the ground that they have no choice but to break or to topple entirely over, taking roots and all with them, to wonder what damage was being done to one's house, to see neighbor's roofs being torn off, or even worse, to hear the noise of one's own roof being torn off, to see heavy patio gates being twisted off, to know that one could not even step outside one's house because the wind would simply throw you about like it did the tree limbs you could see rolling down the street--to have this go on for at least several hours (if the storm was a quick one--Wilma was, but Frances the year before had taken two days from beginning to end), after undergoing the ordeal of preparation and daylong waiting--because one never knows exactly where the storm will pass or how strong it will be--and knowing the problems which would arise afterwards (although no one realized how bad the problems could be even from a weak storm until the problems came to light after Wilma). One would be tempted to say that a hurricane is a bad thing.

But "Give thanks to G-d, for He is good, and his mercies extend to all the worlds", in the words of the Psalmist.

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who make the Lamb make thee?

And indeed, He did make them all: tiger and lamb and hurricane, and His immortal hand indeed framed the hurricane's symmetry. It is an aspect of the Deity that we sometimes forget, or at least would prefer to forget: the power that moves the stars and moves as well such things as hurricanes: but they are His creations and therefore just as much a good thing as anything He in His Wisdom chose to create. He gave them existence, and anything bad about them is something that He imparted to them, and we can not say that He creates anything that is bad. It is only our limitations which make us think they are bad, because we can not see these things in full. There are terrible goods and dreadful beauties in the universe, and who are we "to measure the tremors of Omnipotence?" (The quote is from Charles Williams.)

There is an answer of course for this in Scripture: or perhaps not an answer but a recognition of the situation. I am referring to the Book of Job; of which the ending portion, in which Job hears the Master of the Universe speaking from a whirlwind (and a hurricane is essentially a monstrous whirlwind full of rain), and can only admit that he is only human. He must put his hand upon his mouth, and admit that no one can thwart the purposes of G-d. We might go even a little further than that, and say that no one can know the purposes of G-d. We can only admit that G-d is present in all things, and that however it may seem to our limited view, everything is truly good. "We can not explain the prosperity of the wicked and the calamities of the righteous," Chazal have said. We can only have trust in G-d, and faith that all things are for the best, and knowledge of how weak and little we are compared to the forces of Nature--and how much more so compared to the Maker of the forces of Nature.

But things do not end there. The last page of Job is succeeded by the first page of the Song of Songs,and we may assume that Chazal knew what they were doing when they arranged the order in that fashion. "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!" The austere Will that created the universe is the same Presence that intimately loves and intimately involves Itself in every moment of our lives. He is nearer to us than we are ourselves: and the realization of that fact is what makes the acceptance of that other fact--the inscrutable goodness of His deeds--possible.

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