Lessons of the ‘Snowstorm of the Century’

The snowstorm that overwhelmed Israel this week exposed the country at its best and at its worst.

It revealed the compassion of volunteers — those belonging to organizations like Yad Sarah and Magen David Adom, as well as “freelancers” — whose heartwarming acts of chessed, in the most difficult of circumstances, were a kiddush Hashem of the highest order. Truly, mi k’amcha Yisrael!

It showed the selfless dedication of rank-and-file rescue workers, policemen, soldiers, technicians and others who worked around the clock in brutal weather conditions to try to open roads, restore electricity and ease the suffering of millions of citizens.

However, it also laid bare the arrogance and utter ineptitude of the country’s political leadership, as well the ineptitude and incompetence of local municipalities.

“We prepared for the storm as a country should prepare,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu boasted at a press conference Motzoei Shabbos, taking credit for the low number of fatalities. “In countries that have frequent storms, they are paralyzed for very long periods, and I’m happy to say that’s not the case here.”

But none of those countries has spent hundreds of millions of shekels in recent years preparing for, lo aleinu, catastrophes like massive missile strikes on population centers, earthquakes and chemical-weapons attacks (and worse).

Every few months, the public is told about another large-scale drill that is being held to test Israel’s readiness for a disaster. Right after the exercise, we see pictures in all the newspapers of rescue workers in full-body gas-protection suits “treating” fake wounded, and read glowing reports of how the drill succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations in demonstrating exemplary coordination between the Home Front Command, the police, the army, Magen David Adom and so on.

But if Israel is prepared for an onslaught of tens of thousands of long-range missiles, why wasn’t it ready for a snowstorm?

The answer, explain both the prime minister and the head of the Israel Electric Corporation — which left thousands without electricity and heat for nearly a week — was that this was no regular snowstorm. It was “the worst storm in 150 years.”

In other words, when it comes to taking credit for the minimal loss of life, Netanyahu claims, “We prepared for the storm.” But when it comes to taking responsibility for the unconscionable suffering of thousands of families, he says it was “the worst storm in 150 years” — and was obviously impossible to prepare for.

Netanyahu would sound more credible if he tempered his unbearable arrogance with a bit of humility. He should admit that he is helpless against the forces of “nature,” and that just as he isn’t responsible for the storm’s ferocity, he isn’t responsible for the low number of fatalities, which are the result of chasdei Shamayim.

The difference between a blizzard and a heavy rain, between streets that are safe and those that are coated with a dangerous layer of ice, is a matter of a few degrees, which the Israel Meteorological Service, with all its technological prowess, failed to forecast. (In the height of understatement, it predicted that snow “was expected to stick to the ground” in Yerushalayim.)

The lack of humility has led — not surprisingly — to a lack of humanity on the part of government leaders, who act as if all is well, when tens of thousands of people have no electricity, no water, no heat, for nearly a week. Instead of expressing concern, solidarity and a sense of urgency about the need to ease citizens’ distress, one municipal official in Yerushalayim this week said simply, “This is our [Hurricane] Sandy.” End of discussion.

There is a famous Ramban at the end of Parashas Bo that explains how the Ten Plagues in Mitzrayim shattered all the false views of those who sought to deny Hashem. Specifically, the open miracles, in the form of the plagues, bring man to understand and believe that all events — whether involving the public as a whole or affecting only the individual — are miracles. There is no “nature” that operates on automatic pilot. Rather, everything happens by the decree of Hashem, in consonance with the merits and faults of the person or persons affected.

The argument that the storm was a “once-in-150-years” occurrence is disturbing, not just because it is used as an excuse to shirk responsibility, but because it precludes the possibility of internalizing the lesson of Mitzrayim: that there is no such thing as chance.

Moreover, just as last week’s snowstorm was obviously decreed from Above, so too are the other threats that the Home Front Command is supposed to be preparing for: missiles, earthquakes and all the rest, which we hope and daven will never come.

To be sure, the prime minister has to make maximum hishtadlus and prepare the country for potential catastrophe to the best of its ability. But the statement, “We prepared … as a country should prepare,” when it comes to Israel, requires a deeper understanding of what “preparation” entails.

It means, first and foremost, acting in a way that merits Divine assistance. In the short term, it means government leaders who pound on the table and insist that all streets in the capital be cleared — not just those in elitist, “favored” neighborhoods. That bus service be restored and, most importantly, that people living without heat or water be given immediate relief.

In the long term, it means giving the country its biggest possible zechus by encouraging and supporting Torah learning, instead of hounding those in whose merit the country has enjoyed security.

These are the real lessons of the worst snowstorm in 150 years.