I volunteered to write another d'var Torah for my synagogue newsletter--and I'm getting a little faster; this only took about 8 hours, as opposed to the three months I spent on the last one. It helped that I stole from a bunch of my own previous blog posts. (Re'eh will be read on August 19.)
In the sprawling living room of a Victorian-style dorm at a small college in Massachusetts, we eased into overstuffed chairs and waited for a young man to begin speaking. We were all here this July weekend to attend an a cappella singing workshop. Of varied ages and backgrounds, we had one thing in common--enough disposable income to treat ourselves to a fun little musical vacation.
Carl, our speaker and fellow participant, had a somewhat different story. Since last August, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his city and the only home he had known for his entire 22 years, he possessed little else but the clothes on his back.
We shifted uneasily in our seats as Carl began to talk. Most of us had never met a survivor of Katrina in person; our knowledge of the tragedy came from second-hand accounts whose frequency diminished as time passed and other kinds of devastation took precedence on CNN. I remembered feeling helpless and powerless as I listened to [our rabbi] read Psalm 69 at the Friday evening service following Katrina's week of destruction:
I have come into deep waters and a whirlpool has swept me away.
I am weary with crying, my throat is parched, my eyes grow dim as I wait for my God.
But, he noted, the coming week's parasha was Re'eh: "See." See, this day I set before you blessing and curse (Deut. 11:26). We're commanded to look. And we can't turn away, surrounded on all sides by images of the horror that resulted from our past refusal to see--that wetlands and barrier islands were being destroyed, that the levees of New Orleans would surely fail. Maybe Re'eh was God's psalm, God's plea for us to see the faces of those in pain. And if we chose to look, perhaps blessing rather than curse would be our lot.
I thought of these words as Carl allowed us to glimpse Katrina through his own eyes. Even as the storm grew closer, his mother chose not to leave; there were false alarms before and, besides, their extended family of 19 had only three old cars between them. Finally, as water threatened to sweep the house off its foundation, the police forced them to evacuate. Carl was able to grab only one item, which he guarded with his life while at the Superdome for the next five days: his high school diploma. Among his more than 40 aunts, uncles and cousins, Carl was the very first to graduate.
We sat in silence as he told us, in words bearing the cadences and conviction of a preacher, of horrible days that followed: acts of violence at the Superdome about which he never wished to speak; fruitless attempts to reach another shelter; the separation of his family as younger sisters were sent alone to different states. Carl ended up in San Antonio, where he enrolled in college and joined a church. One Sunday afternoon the minister heard him playing piano and hired him as music director. The following week he overheard sounds of gospel music coming from a practice room at school, and struck up a conversation and then a friendship with the singer. From him Carl learned about the a cappella workshop, which he was attending this weekend on a scholarship.
Someone asked how he felt now--sad, angry, alone?
Hopeful, he answered. The name "Katrina," he noted, means "to purify" in Greek. I'm sad, he said, and I want to go back to my home one day, but my family is alive and I have a job. God was good to us. This is new beginning both for my city and for myself.
Then Carl moved over to the piano in the corner of the living room and began to play "Amazing Grace," his clear tenor soaring above our harmonies.
I listened to his music, watched his smile, and wondered if I could ever be as optimistic in the face of tragedy. Of the beginning of Parashat Re'eh--See, this day I set before you blessing and curse--the 19th-century Ishbitzer Rebbe writes:
This means that each time the Holy One, blessed be He, bestows goodness to man, He dresses it in a garment where it appears on the outside to be the opposite from that goodness. In this way man may refine himself by his actions and bring to light the goodness that is at the depths.
In an era of words and images bombarding us every moment of the day, how do we find this hidden goodness? Can we believe our senses, distinguish between the idols we're warned against (Deut. 12:3) and the truly kosher (14:3-21)? Carl did not let his eyes dim as he waited for God. Carl had the vision to notice that God was hidden beneath all that mud and deep water.
Parashat Re'eh arrives right before the beginning of the month of Elul, a time when we seek purity within our own muddy waters and prepare to be judged anew. We wonder if God will choose blessing or curse for us in the coming year. I pray that we have Carl's ability to see the blessings around us--to see hope in despair, life in death--and make choices that bring blessings to ourselves and to the entire world.