A message from Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline
Ominous reports of Hurricane Florence are creating fear, panic and worry for thousands of people in the path of this monster storm. For those far from that region, vivid memories of New York during Sandy, of Houston, of New Orleans and of other flood-battered communities can be equally dread-ridden and reminiscent of tragedy. For Jews in every part of the world, our concern and our readiness to show support and care for those who are huddling in anticipation of landfall, or who have already evacuated, leaving synagogues, schools and homes behind, is in the forefront of our minds.
How do we view such catastrophic weather? What do we say to one another, and to our frightened children? What does the public, in general, think at times like this?
Even the word “hurricane” – not unfamiliar to those living in America – has a bizarre origin. “Cyclone” is a made-up word barely two hundred years old. “Tornado” is a bit older, Spanish, referring to spinning rain. But “hurricane” is actually an avoda zara name used by the ancient Mayan race to explain how a storm can “grow evil”. The term hurricane came into use when referring to the terror evoked when rain, wind and devastation converge.
What is our view? How do we avoid the “anthropomorphism” of a natural event which consigns it such human-like malevolence, losing sight of our deeper values and Torah truths?
Each morning, we proclaim (Tehillim 148:8) “esh u’barad, sheleg v’kitor, ruach sa’ara osa Devaro” – fire and hail, snow and vapor, wind storming, fulling HaShem’s Word.” The great Chacham Tzvi – Rabbeinu Tzvi Ashkenazi of Amsterdam wrote to the Jews of London three centuries ago (Teshuva 18) that a Jew does not look at natural events as natural, nor attribute them to natural forces. We understand, we know and acknowledge, that every event, from the dew to the rainfall to the breeze to the storm, are evidence of HaShem’s Omnipresence throughout the universe. When the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 227) addresses “fierce winds” and cites two possible brachos which one would say, it is fascinating that the poskim in Europe in generations gone by remark that “we are not experts in determining if a wind is fierce or not.” Given that the “hurricanes” typically sweep across the Atlantic from Africa and plow towards the Caribbean and the Atlantic coast, it is possible that such storms were seldom seen in much of Europe. The bottom line is: many of us sense that Sandy, Florence and similar storms have had a fierce, mighty quality. We do not, of course, consider them a malevolent independent force. We do consider them a manifestation of HaShem’s might and power in His world.
It facing frightening events, especially when explaining them to our children and young students, we ourselves lack a specific power: we do not have the power to interpret or to explain why something is happening, especially when it is happening to someone else. Our children should not be led to conclude that the people in a storm-struck region did something wrong, or that their tragedy is to punish them for something specific. That is not our perspective nor our role. We can speak to our children of mending our own ways, especially during this Tishrei season. We can also speak to them about praying for safe resolution of the storm. We can also encourage our children, and ourselves, to look for ways within our community and schools, to contribute to projects, funds, benevolent activities, to help out those in need.
MIND AND SPIRIT
People throughout history have responded to terrifying events, especially when “nature” is turned asunder and when “natural” forces turn haywire and chaotic, with prayer. We think of Maftir Yona and the sailors in the ocean gale. We think of the native tribes who witnessed Krias Yam Suf, where the posuk says “tipol aleihem emassa v’pachad” (Shemos 15:16) – terror and fear fell over them. Chazal say that those close by who witnessed the fierce waves became frightened. Those who were at a distance, who learned second hand about what was happening, became terrified. There is a medrash which adds that their terror was directed at HaShem, meaning they were terrified about what might happen next, what He might do to them after finishing with Yam Suf.
A lesson to derive from that insight pertains to ourselves and directs us on how to address our children as well. Disaster is humbling, and is supposed to be. Even when we are far from the danger, we take heart, and recognize that there is a spiritual message to be found when we learn of such events. Assist your children in finding their own lesson – whether it is in the abstract-thinking older child who resolves to work on his or her avodas HaShem, or whether it is the practically-thinking school aged child who wants to do something in reaction to the news, whether focusing on a mitzva or on a tefilla, or on a helping project for the victims, or whether it is comforting the young child by listening to their feelings and ideas, and providing them with soothing encouragement and reassurance. Give them the encouragement, and the freedom, to disclose their feelings and their fears, and you need to validate them, not talk them out of feeling what they feel. But give them the freedom and the impetus as well to bring HaShem into their consciousness. Teach them to view every life event as evidence of HaShem’s majestic control over the world, and of our humbled yet assertive role of turning to Him with our praise, and with our fears and with our confusion as well. Do not trivialize a child’s need for your guidance on how a thinking Jew looks at catastrophe. Don’t make it too simple; make it manageable and doable in saying the tehillim with them, explaining the meaning of those words, giving the tzedakah with them, and modeling for them the derech yelchu bah.
Whether you and your family are directly affected by these fierce storms or know others who are, or are living far from there by still concerned about how this might impact your family, be attentive to your child’s need to maintain routine and schedule, even if not yet in a place where there is familiar structure and environment. It is important to see to it that your children are safe, that they sleep, that they eat, and that they talk with you, and with each other. Their fears will correlate directly with the intensity and the duration of their exposure to chaos and upheaval. For those who are having extreme reactions, parents are encouraged to call our crisis hotline. For those who are reacting, but not in extreme ways i.e. restless, scared to go out, questioning you constantly if there will be a storm in your city, not as hungry, not as chipper – be attentive, but also recognize that the majority of children will bounce back, particularly if you let them voice their reactions and you support and validate that they are having the feelings and thoughts which occur after learning of frightening events. Point out to your children that each day, with the passage of time, they will notice that they begin to look at things differently. Encourage them to stay in touch with their friends, but to avoid rumors and to check out any “news” with you before accepting it as fact or repeating it to others.
GROWTH THROUGH CRISIS
When crisis is nearby, it is normal to have a momentary sense of uncertainty. If we keep our feelings in and do not process and discuss them with a trusted, stable and wise person, that moment of confusion can endure. If we process our internal experience, we can move past that moment, and can uncover skills and strengths to cope, to care for others, to take care of ourselves, and to enrich our sense of knowing that HaShem makes the rain and the wind and the fierce storms which pass through the land, and that a Jew turns to Him at those times as well as in times of joy.
The author, Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is director of interventions & community education at Project Chai, the crisis intervention, trauma and bereavement department of Chai Lifeline. Contact Dr. Fox or Zahava Farbman, MSW, associate director of Project Chai, at the 24-hour crisis helpline at 855-3-CRISIS or email firstname.lastname@example.org.