The more sad news we hear out of New Orleans, the more I get the shivers thinking about the fact that Katrina passed right through my city. The eye of the hurricane was right here over my neighborhood, over my house. I live in North Miami Beach, and we got hit by Katrina when it was still a Category One storm, causing some damage, downed trees and power lines, some flooding, power outages. Seeing what that very same storm did a few days later is like finding out that a serial killer was in your backyard but then left and killed people in another neighborhood!
So the first lesson of Katrina is that those of us who dodged the bullet should be very, very grateful. I’ve written about some of the other lessons, but in thinking about this subject it occurred to me that one way to try to understand why G-d sent this storm is to see what actually resulted from it.
What resulted from the storm? An incredible outpouring of charity and kindness, with white people saving blacks, black people saving whites, people from all over the country extending themselves very generously and compassionately to help the unfortunates who lost their homes and belongings in New Orleans. Americans can be very materialistic and money-hungry, very focused on the latest toys and gadgets. And yet when it comes to the crunch, Americans are very decent and generous people. Surely G-d wanted Americans — and American Jews among them — to focus less on material possessions and more on the good and fine qualities that elevate human beings.
Yes, in some instances the hardships of the storm and flooding brought out the worst in people. Human beings do have free will, and not all will live up to the best of which they are capable. Yet throughout New Orleans and throughtout the country, we saw so many instances of sheer goodness. This must have been at least one of the lessons we were intended to learn from Katrina — that G-d wants us to use our wealth to care for each other, and not as an end in itself. That G-d wants His children to look out for each other.
We heard many stories of Jewish communities in Houston and Memphis and other cities taking in hurricane refugees and enrolling Jewish children in their community schools. We know that our fellow Jews will need our help for months to come, that many will never be able to go home and will have to start life all over in new cities. There is something about this exodus, with nothing but a few clothes and a little bit of money, that is very familiar to us in our long history of exile. Jewish communities taking in their brethren — that is also very familiar to us. It hasn’t happened much in America, B”H, but when it happens, it’s like an old familiar story we know all too well.
This time, hundreds of thousands of other Americans are sharing in the quintessential Jewish experience of exile and wandering. That is strange and almost spooky, especially in light of what happened in Israel only a few weeks ago. I don’t know what to make of it, but it is too striking to let it pass by unnoticed. How strange that Americans and Jews should have this in common, exiles losing their homes, people extending kindness to strangers who become brothers.
I love all kinds of music that other people consider hoaky. I love accordians and polkas, the songs old Arthur Godfry used to play on the ukelele, harmonicas, bagpipes — and I love the zydeco. However, I don’t usually cry when I hear these corny instruments played. But today I heard some zydeco music on the radio, theme music for a report on New Orleans, and — to my own surprise — I found the tears welling up. How is it that a whole city could be destroyed and the sun still shine in its usual way?
I saw the famous clip of a black man, holding two little boys by the hands, being interviewed by a blonde reporter. It was the first time I ever saw a reporter cry on air. The man described how he had tried to hold on to his wife in the flood but could not manage, how her last words were, “Take care of the children” before she slipped from his grasp, and his words, “I’m lost, I have nothing.”
Today, Baruch Hashem, we are finding out that the death toll was not nearly as high as first feared, that people are beginning to trickle back, that the levees have been repaired, that the electricity is back on in downtown New Orleans. We hear of families reunited, mothers finding children from whom they had become separated in the maelstrom. But we do not forget the people who have no homes to go back to, and especially, those who will not be reunited with their loved ones in this world.