Tag: Natural Disasters

Rabbi Eric Yoffie: The Impact of Storms at Home and in Israel

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote to leaders of all our congregations to share perspectives on The Impact of Storms at Home and in Israel. He addresses the devastating weather, as well as the damaging political fights erupting over President Obama’s speech and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response. Please take a moment to read and reflect upon this important perspective:

Dear Friend:

These past few weeks have been trying ones, here at home and in Israel.

Many of our North American communities have been battered by devastating weather. Our thoughts are with the victims and we continue to work closely with our congregations in the affected regions. Please check the URJ Disaster Relief page for updates and, if you wish, to make a donation. Together, the entire Reform Movement prays for the welfare of all those impacted by these terrible tragedies. May God grant them comfort and healing in the days, weeks and months to come.

And while some of our communities in North America fight physical storms, our brothers and sisters in Israel fight political ones. Despite its military strength, Israel is a small and vulnerable state, and is now facing especially difficult times. The United Nations will vote in September on whether or not to recognize Palestinian statehood, and if the resolution passes, it will be a distressing sign of Israel’s isolation on the international stage. Uprisings throughout the Arab world create hope for democracy and change, but could also pose serious threats to Israel’s security. And Iran continues its efforts to develop nuclear weapons that will threaten Israel and the world.

Against this backdrop, we have had five tumultuous days of meetings and speeches from President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues related to Israeli-Palestinian peace. President Obama spoke once to the State Department and once to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby; Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to AIPAC and before a joint session of Congress; and the President and Prime Minister met in the White House last Friday.

(Prime Minister Netanyahu also met with a small group of Jewish leaders during the AIPAC Conference, a meeting attended by the Union’s President-designate Rabbi Rick Jacobs.)

There have been no end of commentaries on these developments, but I would like to offer a few reactions of my own.

In his two speeches, the President expressed in the clearest possible terms the unshakable support of the United States government for the State of Israel (and in some cases went well beyond what had previously been said by him or previous administrations). He said for the first time that a Palestinian state must be a demilitarized state. He insisted that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state and the homeland of the Jewish people. He warned the Palestinians against bringing their statehood resolution to the UN. He expressed deep concern about the Hamas-Fatah pact. He affirmed that peace could not be imposed from the outside but must be agreed upon by the parties.

It is difficult to imagine, in fact, a more ringing endorsement by the President of America’s traditional support for Israel. This support was obscured, in some measure, by the bizarre claim that the President had called for a return to 1967 borders; such a step would indeed be impossible and unacceptable, but the President said no such thing, as was clear from his call for secure and recognized borders arrived at through negotiation and mutually agreed exchanges of land. As noted by Ehud Barak, Israel’s Defense Minister, a statement that negotiations start with discussions of the 1967 borders is very different from saying that that is where they end up.

The central premise of the President’s message was that if peace is to come, it will be through the establishment of a Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside a Jewish state. The principle of a two-state solution, of course, has been supported by the last three U.S. administrations and by both major parties; it is also the policy of the State of Israel. The Reform Movement has supported a two-state solution since the early 1990s.

The President also deserves our appreciation for his current efforts to convince our European allies to oppose the UN resolution on Palestinian statehood. Both of his speeches, which affirmed Palestinian rights to a state of their own, have been well received by our allies and should assist in these efforts. As noted, passage of the statehood resolution could seriously undermine Israel’s diplomatic standing.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s powerful statement to Congress expressed gratitude to the United States government for its support and promised painful compromises for peace. The Prime Minister reviewed the policies of his government and gave special emphasis to security threats that Israel is now confronting. He spoke of Hamas’ commitment to terror and to Israel’s destruction; of the need to confront the dangers posed by Iran to the international community; and of the possibility that democratic stirrings in the Arab world could, if they take a wrong turn, lead to hostile governments rather than democratic ones. These threats are real and deeply troubling. The need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not less important on their account but more important; still, they remind us that true security must be an essential component of any peace agreement.

Is there a possibility now of genuine negotiations and progress toward peace? I am far from certain. I believe that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is generally moderate in outlook, but is surrounded by mostly unreasonable voices; the presence of Hamas makes progress far more doubtful still. Nonetheless, we know that every effort must be made. Israel has pledged yet again to do its part, and the Administration has pledged to help move the process forward. We are thankful for these efforts because President Obama is surely right that the current situation is unsustainable, and if peace does not come, Israel’s situation will be more grave 5 years from now than it is today. For that reason, my hope is that if the Palestinian Authority is not forthcoming, Israel’s leaders will take what steps they can take to separate themselves from the Palestinians in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

In the meantime, our task as North American Jews is to offer Israel our love and support; to do everything possible to deepen the friendship between Israel and her most important ally, the United States of America, keeping in mind always that the goal of Israel advocacy is for American – and Canadian – support of Israel to be broad, inclusive, and bi-partisan; and to send the message that Israel’s fate rests not only in the hands of her citizens but in the hands of Jews everywhere.

As I wrote on Yom Ha’atzma’ut, let us pray, today and everyday, that peace and redemption will come to Israel’s borders and that harmony will hallow Jerusalem’s gates, bi’meheira u’viyameinu—speedily, and in our day.


Eric H. Yoffie

Why the Good Die Young

A Conversation with God about 4 Funerals, Illness and an Earthquake in Haiti

What a pair of months February and March were last year; so much tragedy. A 13-year-old was killed crossing the street. A vibrant teenager – a student at our local New Community Jewish High School – was lost in a car accident. A 21-year-old rabbi’s son was struck down by a car while at college. A 42-year-old mother – our congregant – died in a snowboarding accident. A 49-year-old “pied piper” of a man – another congregant – dropped dead from a heart attack. Thousands of people came to the funerals.

I noticed that God attended each funeral, but amidst the many tear-filled eulogies, there wasn’t time for God to speak. So God sat quietly at the side – listening, crying. God left quietly after each funeral ended, and almost no one realized that God had been there. I did take notice. Wondering what God might have said had God been invited to deliver a eulogy, I dashed out after the Holy One. Still reeling from these funerals, I wondered if God could make sense of these senseless deaths. I asked if God had time to talk, and God was willing. We strolled through the cemetery, talking quietly.


Man: So God, what did you think of the funerals?

God: (in a still, small voice) Teenagers died. A young mom, gone before her time. A college freshman hit by a drunk driver. It is all very, very sad.

Man: Which was sad, God? The funerals or the deaths?

God: Both. Two fun-loving kids; so much potential, such bright futures ahead. A beautiful mother, whose vivaciousness was surpassed only by her charitableness. But the funerals were sad, too. The speakers, caught up in telling their own stories, understandably left out Mine. They missed awesome opportunities to speak about My love, My pain, and My hope for your future.

Man: You mean you don’t agree with what the rabbis said?

God: Look, one said Baruch dayan ha-emet, the traditional words of “Blessed be the Judge of Truth,” suggesting that what happened was all part of a plan – My plan – while another suggested I took a boy’s life because he didn’t celebrate Shabbat that week. Some people, I suppose, find comfort in the idea that I have a master plan. Others find direction through religious rituals, which perhaps they believe help them beat the odds of life. If that brings them comfort, they can cherish those beliefs. But those ideas are built upon ancient words, misinterpreted to suggest things I didn’t say and I never meant. It’s neither who I am nor how I work. I don’t pre-plan untimely deaths and I don’t punish those who don’t keep the rituals. I am not responsible for those deaths.

Man: Wait, with all due respect, You created everything– spectacular sunsets, shooting stars and beautiful California coastline – But, you also created poisonous snakes and ferocious lions, as well as earthquakes, hurricanes and deadly diseases. And, forgive me, but You are the One who created the humans who created the automobiles that led to the deaths of three people. Just where do you get off abdicating responsibility for any of this?

God: There you go again! Blaming Me for what you refuse to acknowledge, what you fail to see. Yes, I created it all, each with its own purpose. Some of it blessedly benevolent; some of it potentially dangerous. So I created lions. Leave them alone and they are just gorgeous creatures. Bother them and look out!

Man: I don’t care about the lions? I’m talking about earthquakes and all those diseases –Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and cancerous tumors that ravaged my friend’s body!

God: I see how you might want to lay blame on Me for the creation of all of that because, yes, Creation was My idea and My doing. Call them the dreadful consequences of an imperfect Creation. Call it collateral damage of My desire to create humanity. Whatever you call it, know that natural disasters and unnatural disease were all unintended.

Man: How can you call these awful things, existing in the universe of Your creation, unintended?

God: Listen, each one pains Me. They weren’t in any plan. When I set out to create, I began with exactness and perfection. But when I began creating the universe, I failed to realize that I was creating something that was other-than-Me. And because it was other-than-Me, it was imperfect. All approximations are intrinsically imperfect. Your teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, articulated the story of creation well.

Man: You mean, the mystic from Tzfat, who taught the story of repairing the world, that we call Tikkun Olam?

God: Yes. First there was only Me. Everything was God. Ein Sof, Me without end. Then I contracted – tzimtzum – I pulled back to make space for Creation. I created the universe, as vessels, which at that moment were devoid of anything, including Me. Then I poured My light back into those vessels. But my light was too pure and too potent for the creation-that-was-not-Me. So it blew up – sh’virat ha-keilim – the vessel broke apart, sending shards of creation and sparks of My light all over the universe.

Broken world; bad things happen. The earthquakes and tsunamis. Cancer and heart attacks. Automobile accidents and incomprehensible tragedies on the slopes. All the result of a broken world, an imperfect world.

Man: So the imperfections were fundamentally a mistake. And as the Creator of All, they are Your mistake. But now I see that they were not Your Plan; rather they were an unintended consequence of Your desire to create our universe and us. Of Your aspiration to invest the universe-that-was-not-You with Your perfect light. Hmmm, it sounds like a beautiful experiment that sort of blew up. So how do you live with these tragedies, however unintended they may be?

God: I have tried to provide humanity with the ability to lessen their effect. Since earthquakes are unintended but inevitable, I make sure that everyone who buys a home (at least in California) has to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that they will be living near an earthquake fault and that they understand the danger. If I were human, I probably wouldn’t live there. But, given the whole “free choice” component I built into Creation, everyone gets to decide how to live and where to live. So with free choice, you get the freedom to make your own dangerous and foolish decisions.

Man: So if we want free will, we can’t really expect You to step in to protect us. Then we’d just be Your puppets. We get to make the choices and we have to live with the consequences. We shouldn’t blame you then for the car crashes if we have seatbelts but don’t wear them, and know about air bags but don’t insist they be installed in all parts of our cars…

God: But even if you use all this safety equipment, people will still crash and die, or be left brain-dead. Because Creation is fundamentally broken, imperfect.

Man: What about all those diseases, causing children to die young and my friend to suffer so intensely?

God: Unintended but treatable. In a sense, they’re similar to the seatbelt dilemma. I give you humans big brains and teach you to understand science and medicine. Then you must decide whether you will focus your time and research dollars on curing diseases like Parkinson’s and MS, or if you will instead use your God-given resources to build sophisticated smart bombs and laser-guided missiles. Collectively, you humans have the ability to cure all these diseases. Do you also have the inclination to make it the priority?

Man: Are you saying that although you led us to the secrets of building earthquake-safe homes, we freely chose to allow thousands upon thousands of people in Haiti to continue to live in sub-par dangerous housing until it collapsed like a deck of cards when the earthquake hit?

God: Mmm. And don’t get Me started on Hurricane Katrina. The knowledge existed about how to build levees, which could withstand a Level 5 hurricane; I made sure of it. But as a country, you somehow squandered the knowledge and resources. You want to blame Me? You left the poor to fend for themselves! …It pains me to watch you abdicate your responsibility, as you fail to live up to your end of our human-Divine partnership. I cry for each life lost. I cry that you humans are suffering, and will suffer. I cry for the pain that I let into your life the day I decided to pull back and give you free will.

Man: Truthfully God, when I hurt, I don’t always feel that You are close. Where do You go when I’m in real pain?

God: That’s just it. I am still here. By your side. I’m holding you up and making sure you get through the day. Do you ever wonder how you find the strength to get out of bed the next morning? That’s Me. Do you see all those people who came over to your house, to hug and hold your loved ones, to take care of the arrangements so you could fall apart. That’s Me too. I’m making sure you keep getting phone calls and e-mails and all those beautiful memories posted to Facebook. My Friends are your Facebook Friends doing My sacred work. And when you rage at Me in anger, or withdraw from Me in pain, I’m still here, waiting patiently. Still loving. Still helping. It’s the holy work I do.

Man: Okay, but honestly, with the universe so filled with imperfection and bad things that continue to happen, do You regret that you created us in the first place?

God: I wanted to give you life. Like a parent, I brought you into this world so you could love and dream and bring joy to each other and to Me. And I gave you minds to think and hands to work and hearts to lead with compassion. Some of you forget and think you are invincible. Or think it’s only about you. And so you end up hurting yourself and often hurting others in the process. This pains Me.

Man: So God what is it that you want from us?

God: I want you to learn from each loss. Learn to buckle up, to visit the doctor more often, to play safely. Stop sweating the small stuff, and fighting and kvetching. And you should count your blessings more regularly. And to get good grades and do good work, so you can use your amazing minds to repair our world, to create great manifestations of our shared compassion and justice. And I want you to speak truth to power. And speak love to pain. Make sure everyone can be healthy. That everyone has enough. You should go give tzedakah. Go repair your broken relationships before it is too late. And invite Me into your lives by acting humbly, and living ethically, and caring for everyone, whether you know them or not.
And you must remember the teenagers, and the mother and the men. Live up to the best that they were. And comfort their mourners, today, next month and next year, because their pain will continue. And spend time with the ill ones, bringing them comfort amid their suffering. And remember and never forget, that I, the Eternal your God, am always here. Caring, loving, open to listen, to holding you, and to helping you through.

Man: Is there anything else we can do?

God: You can try to make quiet time to meditate and pray. Daily. I do. I pray that the memory of your loved ones – and the teens and the mom and the men and unnamed ones in Haiti and beyond – bring you blessing and joy. And that those who are ill have hope. May you comfort each other, and feel My love, too, and may you find fortitude and courage so that you may endure the inevitable dark times. Remember, there also will be plenty of joy. I love you. I wish for you wholeness and shalom.

That was my conversation with God. Open, honest, thought-provoking. You might find those answers comforting, or you might have different questions or seek different answers. I encourage each of you to approach God with your own questions. God always listens, and often responds back. And of course, you can always come talk with me, your rabbi. Although I am not God, I will gladly help you deepen your own relationship with the Holy One. I hope you will. Now wouldn’t that make this New Year truly a Shana Tova u’Metuka!

A Prayer for the People of Haiti

A prayer for the people of Haiti, 

who, on a good day, 
must take heroic measures

just to wake the next, 

And who must now find a way 

to live through the end of the world: 

O Compassionate One,
whose relief work is beyond our capabilities 

Breathe life today into those buried alive 

and strengthen the response capacity
 of Your relief workers in this world

To hear those who have yet to be saved,
To hear those who have been saved
but whose limbs and lives are crushed,
To hear those who pray
For those who can no longer pray for themselves.

O Source of Speech,
embedded in the language of love, 

Fortify the souls of those who call out now in rescue

O Life Force,
expressed in the language of loss, 

Send strength to those who, with their last strength 

Now seek nothing more than finding loved ones 

A prayer for the people of Haiti,
who on this day
take heroic measures 
just to survive, 

And with the world’s help,
Will find a way
to live into 
an new world,
Though one rebuilt
on the rubble of unfathomable loss.

O Source of Response to need, 

Be the blessing

Of prayers realized.

And we say: Amen

Adapted by Rabbi Shawn Zevit from a prayer by Bradley Burston, Israel News 

With thanks to the Union for Reform Judaism for sharing this resource with me

My favorite place to donate to help Haitians is the Reform Movement Haiti Relief Fund:

In the wake of the horrific destruction that has hit Haiti, our national organization, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), has opened its disaster relief fund to aid those devastated by the severe earthquake. With a still-unimaginable number of casualties, relief and support is being directed to help rescue and recovery efforts scale up rapidly. A number of our partner organizations are already on the ground or on their way to provide assistance. Donations to the Union for Reform Judaism Haiti Relief Fund can be made online at www.urj.org/relief or by sending a check to Union for Reform Judaism, Attention: Development, 633 Third Avenue, 7th floor, New York, NY, 10017.

Background: Our Reform Jewish community has a long history of generosity when natural disasters devastate communities, when houses of worship burn in the fires of racial prejudice, when terrorism causes havoc, and when other disasters cause untold harm across the planet. In such times, the Union for Reform Judaism activates the Union Disaster Fund for contributions, which are then forwarded to appropriate agencies. In recent years the Union Disaster Relief Fund has provided help to the victims September 11, floods in Europe, earthquakes in South America and Southeast Asia, Black churches that were burned in Southern United States and the Grand Forks community when it flooded. In the wake of the hurricanes that battered the Gulf Coast in 2005, more than $3 million in donated funds were raised to help the victims and agencies that are assisting them and the congregations of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Florida.The Union for Reform Judaism is a member of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which allows a unified Jewish response to natural and man-made crises that occur outside of North America.