The overwhelming forces of nature make mockery of humankind's efforts at taming them. There is much public and political opinion afoot in the US not to rebuild the city of New Orleans in its present location because of its vulnerability to flooding. In effect, this opinion proposes a 21st-century surrender to nature and its wrathful and destructive unpredictability. Its admission of defeat is a humbling reminder of how puny humans are in relation to natural disasters.
All of our great technological achievements still cannot overcome the forces of nature implanted by our Creator in our world. There is little room for human pride and hubris in the face of the devastation brought upon us by natural disasters. We stand in mute shock, witnessing forces beyond our control or even our imagination.
When I was a rabbi in Miami Beach in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my family and I experienced three direct hits from hurricanes. Those hurricanes invariably occurred during the month of Elul, the month of introspection and preparation for the High Holy Days. It is customary in the yeshiva world to deliver mussar schmuessen - lectures on morality, ethics, ritual observance and the importance of serving God in our lives, especially during Elul. These talks are a wonderful tool in helping one enter into the solemnity of spirit that marks the High Holy Days.
But after my congregation's experiences with the hurricanes, I felt that any lectures that I might have delivered would have been hollow and unnecessary. A hurricane is an impressive and awesome mussar schmuess all by itself. No human being's words of wisdom can improve upon it. If one is not sufficiently humbled by the power of a hurricane's winds, rains and tides, one certainly won't be humbled by a speech, no matter how "inspiring."
The main message of Elul and of the High Holy Days is one of humility. The Psalmist states: "What is man that You should care to know him, human beings that You should deem them to be important?" Natural disasters remind us of our mortality and weaknesses. It is only through humility that one can find true spirituality and connection to God. God is not necessarily in the earthquake or the hurricane itself. God is found in the still, small voice of human humility and helplessness that comes after the awesome display of His nature's might and fury.
Only when hubris and haughtiness are conquered within a person's soul and mind, behavior and outlook, is there room for the Godly spirit to enter. And in one of the paradoxes of human nature, only the humble can achieve true and lasting spiritual greatness.
Why does God employ natural disasters to inform us of the importance of humility? Why does He allow for such great human suffering for so many seemingly blameless people? I certainly do not know how to answer or even deal with these troubling questions. Man cannot understand or fathom God's methods for dealing with this world. However, because we cannot satisfactorily explain something does not allow us to ignore its obvious lessons.
The still, small voice is preceded by hurricanes, volcanoes and earthquakes. If we leave immediately after the noise and power displayed by these natural disasters and do not stay around to hear the small, still voice that can emanate within us from witnessing and experiencing such natural disasters, then it is truly only a random disaster that strikes us. However, if it allows for moments of introspection and leads us to an understanding of the necessity of humility and kindness in our lives, then the natural disaster, unwanted and inexplicable as it is, may have value for each of us, especially in this month of Elul.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).