By the time you read this column, I will either have been blown away by a monster hurricane, never to desecrate these august pages with my scribbles again, or it will all have been a case of overblown hysteria.
I came with my wife and children to visit my mother and siblings in Miami, where I grew up, for Succot, the Jewish festival that mandates sitting outside in makeshift huts for a seven-day duration. The most severe damage we thought we would experience was cooking out in the Florida heat. Little did I expect that an unwelcome visitor named Wilma would huff and puff, and blow all the succot down.
As we waited while the giant hurricane took its time demolishing Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula before moseying on toward South Florida, an acquaintance of mine, newly returned to Judaism, told me that it is clear that the recent wave of hurricanes is God's punishment for sin, and the proof is the three areas recently devastated.
Mississippi, New Orleans and Cancun are famous for gambling and sexual licentiousness. South Florida, which, he contended, was about to be wiped off the earth by the hurricane, was America's hedonist and gay club capital. He further pointed out that when he and I grew up in Miami Beach in the 1970s, when the city was essentially a dilapidated dump, there were no serious hurricanes. Only once South Beach became the topless beach playground of North America did all the devastation begin.
Blaming human sin for the recent hurricanes in the United States is all the rage, and countless religious Americans, over the last few months, have given me some variation of my friend's diagnosis for the surge in hurricanes. But if it is true that God is punishing the US for its corruption and if it is true that natural disasters are a sign of divine displeasure, I have but one question. Where is the big hurricane that should have destroyed Riyadh, the capital of a country that has funded religious hatred and sponsor terrorism, for decades?
Where, by the same token, is the big earthquake that should have taken out the regime of Kim Jong Il, which starves North Korea's children, even as he feeds his army goons? Where is the tornado that should have scooped up the Janjaweed militias of Sudan, perpetrating a horrific genocide in the Darfur region?
WHAT IS so offensive about those who maintain that America is being punished by God for its sinfulness is not only the implied contempt for the world's most benevolent democracy. No, the real tastelessness in the argument lies in the suggestion that God is more offended by topless women, gay couples and casinos than by the murder of innocents and the persecution of widows and the weak.
Yes, the Torah labels homosexuality an abomination, just as it lists the eating of shellfish or bringing a blemished animal on God's holy altar as a similar abominable act. But search the entire Ten Commandments and one will not find in any of its 620 words an inclusion of homosexuality as one of the 10 cardinal sins of immorality.
Religious people in America have got to stop playing into the hands of terrorists and dictators by suggesting that homosexuality and sexual immorality are the equals of murder and massacre in God's lists of sinfulness. Yes, they are sins, and no one is whitewashing any of them. But the Bible clearly distinguishes between sins that harm one's fellow man and sins which harm oneself, the former being far more serious than the latter.
That is why God includes the prohibition of adultery in the Ten Commandments, because stealing someone else's wife is far more serious than sleeping with a single woman, even though they both transgress the divine will.
America is not a perfect country. Its culture has become deeply misogynistic, and women are exploited every day on American TV to sell beer and SUVs. Likewise, Americans, both young and old, have grown coarser and more materialistic, subjected as they are to a vulgar culture that has little intellectual or spiritual merit. But for all that, America continues to be the shining light of liberty and the holy grail of goodness to the rest of the world.
No country spends more blood and treasure to uphold the dignity and freedom of complete strangers than America. None rushes to the aid of international victims of disasters more. And, no country has welcomed in more immigrants fleeing oppression than the United States.
The Jewish community knows these truths better than any other. With the obvious exception of Israel, we have flourished in this country as we have in no other since the beginning of time. I was appalled that some rabbis - both in Israel and the US - gave speeches suggesting that America was punished by God with Hurricane Katrina for supporting the Israeli government's forced evacuation of the brave and religiously upright settlers of Gush Katif.
Firstly, why should the US be held accountable for Ariel Sharon's folly? But aside from this logical objection, they should be ashamed of themselves. What kind of ingratitude is it that would have Jewish representatives condemn a country that, however imperfect, provides Israel with billions of dollars a year in support, and that consistently vetoes nearly every anti-Israel resolution in the United Nations?
For this and for so many other reasons I know that a just and merciful God continues to bestow His bounty and blessing upon this great country. As a grateful American I say, and have forever taught my children to say, God bless America.