See that I am endowing upon you today both
a blessing and a curse – Opening of this week’s
Torah portion (Deuteronomy 11:26)
The boundary has been breached yet again:
First the Tsunami
in the Indian Ocean last December; now Hurricane Katrina
on the Gulf Coast of the United States.
Death and devastation were left in the wake
of the killer winds. But even worse is the damage done by
the secondary effects of the hurricane: The flooding waters
breaking through the levees in New Orleans.
Its heart wrenching to see the images of dead
bodies, homeless men and women, homes destroyed, the sick
in dire need of medical attention – the sheer misery
of so many people uprooted.
We have to feel humble. Despite all our technological
advancements, we are quite vulnerable to the forces of nature.
One deadly blow dealt by a hurricane has changed millions
of lives forever.
Like all tragedies this one is bringing out
the best and the worst in people, both the blessing and
the curse: Remarkable acts of heroism and generous philanthropy
on the beautiful side; looting and pillaging on the ugly
As it was after the Tsunami, the outpouring
of charity and humanitarian aid demonstrates an unprecedented
benevolence – unlike anything ever seen in history.
Over thousands of years nations have exploited each other,
especially in vulnerable times. Today however we find a
powerful surge of decency. What has changed?
Yet, we cannot ignore the exposure of many
people’s most base elements as they revert to primitive
predators when left to their own devices.
Why is it that disorder – the breakdown
of conventional structures – causes some of us to
shine and others to stink? Is it due to nature, poverty,
education, lack thereof or some other factors?
How would you behave with no fear of law enforcement?
Would you become a devil or a saint? Would you choose the
path of “blessing” or that of “curse”?
These and many other questions come to mind
as we choose to look at a major catastrophe of our times.
As Maimonides exhorts us: “When a calamity strikes
the public we must cry out, examine our lives and correct
our ways. To say that the calamity is merely a natural phenomenon
and a chance occurrence is insensitive and cruel
(Laws of Fasting 1:2-3).
And of course, the big question is about G-d.
Why does He give us “both a blessing and a curse”
in the first place? The answer, if we can call it an answer,
lies in one word in the opening of this week’s Torah
chapter: “See that I am endowing upon you today
both a blessing and a curse.” The fascinating word
used here is “endowing” – as if it’s
a “gift” (“noson” in the original
Hebrew is the root of “matonoh” (gift). As the
Talmud states “All who give, always give with a good
eye”). To endow a gift of blessing makes sense, but
what does it mean to “endow” us with the “gift”
The greatest gift of all is clarity. In an
imperfect word like ours it is not realistic to expect that
we will only have perfect moments. Life is filled with challenges.
Difficult moments come our way as much, if not more than
beautiful experiences. The real challenge if life is not
to avoid or ignore the harder times, but to know what to
do with them. We are endowed with this gift of clarity:
to know how to deal with any given situation – whether
it be a “blessed” one or a “cursed”
one. To be aware of the path not to take is
as great a gift as knowing which path to take.
Why life has “curses” – whether they are “natural”
disasters or man-made ones – is the great question of the
ages. After all the answers that have been offered, sacred
silence is the ultimate answer: For the suffering person,
no explanation in the universe or beyond, will ever justify
or explain trauma. A rational mind cannot speak to a bleeding
heart. Academic discussions do not touch the crying soul.
The mind is simply too limited.
However, what is equally true is that we have
been endowed with all the necessary resources and faculties
to face any challenge that comes our way, both the path
of “blessing” and the path of “curse.”
We may not know why tragedy strikes, but we can know what
do about it.
There’s much to say. But also very little
to say. We are taught that we are all creatures of one G-d
and all part of one grand design. The tragedy of one person
is a tragedy for the entire human race. How much more so
a collective tragedy that has affected millions of people.
We therefore console each other by expressing
our feelings, validating our questions and sharing our experiences.
The human experience – whether it be in pain or in
joy – is sacred, and our natural reactions –
whether it be outrage or resolution – is Divine.
I cannot claim success, but one primary objective
of my writing these lines week after week, is to give credence
to the human experience of loss and gain. To respect the
dignity – yes, that’s the word – dignity.
Human dignity, the most Divine of features (malchut in the
mystical structure), has been greatly compromised in our
times. One of the greatest achievements is to lift people’s
spirits and celebrate human dignity.
Amidst the devastation on the Gulf Coast,
ultimately the saddest sight to witness is people stooping
to bestial behavior, betraying their own dignity and that
of others. And the most empowering experience is seeing
human dignity honored.
Yes, we always have two paths before us: Blessing
and curse. Knowing that is a great gift. How we will choose
is up to us.
In the spirit of communication, I have written
about the effects and lessons we can glean from natural
disasters. Instead of plagiarizing and repeating these ideas
here, here are the links to the articles: One was about
Hurricane Frances last September – Interview
with Frances. And another about the December Tsunami
and its after effects, A
When land is devastated by flooding waters
(resulting from a hurricane or a tsunami) one fundamental
issue that comes to mind is that of boundaries: The breakdown
of the inherent boundary between land and water.
In the Tsunami article I cited at length the
psycho-spiritual meaning of the boundary between land and
water – the boundary between the conscious and the
unconscious, between matter and spirit. This border is necessary
for sanity and for individuality. Yet, the ultimate goal
is to bridge and integrate both universes, in ways that
one does not annihilate the other.
However, in an unbalanced world these boundaries
get confused, and occasionally intrude in destructive ways.
Boundaries are one of the challenges of our
times. Whether physical, psychological or emotional, boundaries
of all sorts have become highly ambiguous today. The same
is with the boundaries between our spiritual and material
lives, between Church and State, between personal and marketplace
ethics and in personal, communal and international relationships
– we find it difficult do define where one standard
begins and another ends.
In Israel, where everything is amplified,
boundaries are a very real issue, and therefore the inevitable
so called “occupations” and “evacuations.”
Perhaps that’s why the Torah places much emphasis
on “gvulei haaretz” (land boundaries), and all other parameters
of life: To ensure a fully integrated life we must respect
the boundaries of our diversity.
A fascinating phenomenon today is the fact
that as technologies converge communities diverge. It was
presumed, as logic would seem to dictate, that as the world
became increasingly global (economically and technologically),
the borders would thaw between societies, cultures, communities
and nationalities. Instead, the exact opposite is happening.
Segmentation is intensifying. Why? Because diversity is
healthy and inherent. Thus, the globalization of knowledge
is empowering individuals and strengthening the uniqueness
Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated with devastating
results the breakdown of the boundary between water and
land. As a result the once thriving New Orleans is now mostly
submerged in water. (True, the city was built upon below
sea level swampland, but in our own self aggrandizing confidence
we thought we, the people of land, had conquered the waters).
Physics today understands that we live in
an interactive universe. We, humans, are not objective observers
of the world in which we live. We affect and are affected
by the events around us. It’s as if the atomic particles
can sense us. The observer actually changes his/her environment.
This is not to be understood in a simplistic,
linear fashion. Rather, we have a complex symbiotic relationship
with the universe. Whether we feel it or not, natural phenomena
– like hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes –
impact and are impacted by us far more than we can ever
What would the world be like if there were
no hurricanes and floods? The tragedy is not the actual
storm, but the havoc it wreaks when man stands in its path.
Hurricanes and earthquakes at sea, for instance, hurt no
one, and are actually a very healthy component of our ecosystem.
Science explains that hurricanes are a necessary
part of the atmospheric circulation system, which moves
heat from the equatorial region toward the higher latitudes.
They may bring much-needed precipitation to otherwise dry
regions. An appreciable percentage of Japan's rainfall is
due to typhoons, for instance.
Mystics explain that the winds and rains are
part of maintaining cosmic balance. In a fragmented world,
one not consciously in touch with its source or mission,
gusts blow in winds of change and precipitation moisten
our arid lives.
The imbalance “gets out of control” – as in
the “breakage of vessels” in the mystical world of Tohu
(if you have no idea what that means, read the Tsunami
article) – when a hurricane or another powerful event strikes
land and inflicts devastating damage.
So, as our hearts go out to the dead and the
suffering, the survivors and the displaced, let us remember
to keep sacred the boundaries in our own lives.
Let us remember that we always have two paths
before us: Blessing and curse. And that we have the power