Getting the Message

For those who find themselves within — or fleeing from — the wide path of the storm’s spiral bands, a hurricane is a traumatic and often devastating experience. For the rest of the country, keeping track of its powerful winds and frightening storm surges is a source of fascination and endless discussion.

In the past week, as one part of the country still struggled to recover from the immediate aftereffects of Hurricane Harvey, another was being battered by Hurricane Irma, an incredibly powerful storm that is dominating international headlines. The drama surrounding the hurricane almost eclipsed the fact that late Thursday, Mexico was hit by an extraordinarily strong, 8.1-magnitude earthquake that was felt for more than 650 miles.

Expressing our deepest empathy for the victims and doing all we can to come to their assistance is, of course, a key part of how we react to such developments. But as Torah Jews we should not and cannot suffice with treating these occurrences as something that is happening to “others.”

Whether one was in the eye of the storm or safely ensconced a thousand miles away, it should be clear that within these massive wind gusts lies a message for each of us.

On Friday nights, during Kabbalas Shabbos, we recite “Mizmor l’Dovid havu LaHashem” (Tehillim 29).

In his classic commentary on Tehillim, Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch gives a profound explanation of these pesukim.

Kol Hashem bakoach, kol Hashem b’hadar … — The voice of Hashem is within every force, the voice of Hashem is with all things beautiful. The voice of Hashem also breaks cedars, even as Hashem also broke the cedars of Lebanon. As he made them skip like calves…. The voice of Hashem also strikes flames of fire… (29:4–7).”

Rav Hirsch teaches that within every show of strength or harmonious beauty in what is commonly referred to as “nature,” the Voice of Hashem, so to speak, is calling to us.

“The Voice of Hashem, which demonstrates its creative, shaping and regulating strength in nature as well as in your own lives can also bring destruction. Those who, like cedars, will attempt to resist His power, have cause to fear His Voice, for it will destroy them, just as, in the realm of nature, the might of Hashem shatters cedars and moves mountains…”

All we have to do is listen.

***

Nearly a century ago, when devastating earthquakes killed tens of thousands in Japan, the Chofetz Chaim undertook a partial fast and urged Klal Yisrael to do teshuvah. Two years later, when a powerful earthquake hit Russia, destroying entire cities and causing many fatalities, the Chofetz Chaim wrote a powerful letter about it.

“Certainly, any thinking person should be gripped by fear and trembling as to what Hashem has done to us. The One Who is good and does good to all is merciful to all His creations, and does not even desire the death of the wicked, as it says: ‘By My life, says Hashem, I do not desire the death of the wicked one, but rather that he repent and live’ (Yechezkel 33). The understanding person will realize that Hashem is urging us to do teshuvah and is showing us all that He has the power to do as He pleases, and none of His creations of above or below can tell Him what to do. And it is clear to me that if we had prophets sent from Hashem, they would, without doubt, be standing guard to urge Jews to do teshuvah to our Father in Heaven. Because, with our evil deeds, we have no prophets or Divine messengers in our times, He is urging us through other messengers to do teshuvah, as it says: ‘He makes winds His messengers; burning fire His servants…’”

The Chofetz Chaim goes on to refer to the story of Yonah Hanavi, and stresses that it is up to every Yid with yiras Hashem in his heart to ask the words spoken to Yonah by the captain of the ship that was about to capsize in a devastating storm: “How can you sleep so soundly? Arise! Call to your G-d!”

“Behold, my brothers and friends, we see that the Middas Hadin has strengthened itself very much in the world… it is a wonder to me that the world doesn’t fear at all when we see that all the [descriptions] mentioned in Unesaneh Tokef were fulfilled this year and no one is paying attention. Each and every one should be afraid… we are obligated to believe that that [what transpired] is a warning from Hashem that we should do teshuvah…”

These piercing words of the Chofetz Chaim speak for themselves every day of the year. And how much more do they speak to us just days before Rosh Hashanah?