Sometimes It Takes A Tragedy Like A Hurricane To Wake Us Up And Motivate Us To Help [Parshat Vayera by Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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Hurricane Sandy death toll reaches 74. Power outages now stand at more than 5.6 million homes and businesses, down from a peak of 8.5 million – AP 2/11

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing … and he ran toward them … and he said, “My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.” – Gen 18:2-3

As we look in awe at the images of devastation across the East Coast of America we can only try to imagine what those who lost so much are going through. Lives snatched away; homes and businesses destroyed; personal possessions and family heirlooms sodden and unrecognizable; roofs, windows, cars and boats smashed beyond repair — all claimed by the hurricane with the most gentle name.

Whenever tragedy strikes there are always those in society who take advantage of others’ confusion to loot, rob and steal; but there are many more that will rise to the occasion, offering a helping hand and a kind word, a mop and bucket or a loaf of bread. Those are the images which stick in our minds, the acts of selflessness and friendship, which give us reason to believe that with acts of kindness mankind has the ability to endure and overcome the worst disasters the world can throw at us.

Helping others is a cornerstone of our faith. Gemilut chasadim is considered one of the core traits of the Jewish People, and no respect is given to the tzaddik in peltz — the guy who wraps himself up to keep warm instead of making a fire to warm others too (usually used in a spiritual context, as in one who improves him or herself while ignoring others).

Two weeks ago, on a Shabbat in Jerusalem, a young man was called to the Torah in the Great Synagogue. This young man, called Ari, was about to get married and this was his final aliyah to the Torah as a single man. All his family and friends were there to watch him, to throw sweets and sing Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov as he finished the blessings. Yet a strange thing happened … as soon as Ari had finished the blessings he bolted out of the shul door, and disappeared.

People were puzzled, but Ari’s guests were not fazed at all — they all knew Ari was a volunteer paramedic, known to drop everything as soon as his pager vibrated … even on his special Shabbat.

Sure enough, an elderly man had been knocked down outside the shul, and once Ari had administered CPR and the ambulance crew had taken over, he headed calmly back into shul. Ari never turns off his pager, except once … his fiancée insisted that it was turned off on their wedding day!

Our Sages tell us that the patriarchs and matriarchs laid a path for us to follow. Avraham, as we read in the parsha this Shabbat, was a paradigm of kindness. Together with Sarah his wife their passion was inviting guests into their desert dwelling and caring for them like a mother cares for her children. They gave them food for their hunger, drink for their thirst, water for their feet and kindness for their souls.

So great was Avraham’s desire to fulfill the mitzva of hosting guests that even after his circumcision at an advanced age without unaesthetic or painkillers, he was more worried that a desert traveler would pass by than by his own discomfort. When he spies three such men in the distance, he dashes out to them — putting a conversation with G-d on hold — and ensures they will stop, rest and eat. That they are really angels bearing news of a miracle child (Yitzchak/Isaac) is surely a fitting reward for his altruistic behavior.

Avraham’s depth of feeling for others is evidenced by his strenuous pleas for G-d not to destroy the five cities (including the main city of Sodom) which were filled with evil and unpleasant people. Despite the fact that the behavior they displayed was anathema to Avraham, he defends them to the hilt, pleading with G-d again and again, until he can push his luck no more.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy like a hurricane to wake us up and motivate us to help, to volunteer, to donate time and money to people we don’t know. If we can take a message from the parsha this week, it is to stay in that mode for the rest of our lives … always on the ready and looking for an opportunity to help someone in need. They may not turn out to be angels, but you definitely will. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.




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