People often say that we are a divided country, but two types of events changed that for the time being. First was the solar eclipse where people travelled across the country, interacting with people they had never met before to watch the eclipse. It did not matter whether one was Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Independent: all political differences were put aside as people reveled in this scientific wonder. It’s not surprising that rabbis in the Talmud viewed eclipses as curses; after all the sun went out. However, we are more likely to view them as momentous events to watch and celebrate together.
The other type of event unfortunately corresponds too well to today: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, Nate, etc., as well as earthquakes in Mexico and the wildfires in northern California. After my sermon we will begin to acknowledge G-ds great power: משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם, that G-d causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall. At the end of the Geshem prayer, we will pray that G-d, who honored our ancestors through water, will do the same for us. So many acts from our history, including Isaac’s birth, the patriarchs meeting their wives, Moses’ saving, the exodus from Egypt and Aaron’s enacting atonement for the Jewish people are connected to water. For their sake, G-d, do not withhold water from us. The emphasis of Geshem is on avoiding drought, which was thought to be the result of some wrongdoing on our part. It led to a series of fasts, six additional prayers being added to the Amidah, and an additional Neilah prayer service in which we begged G-d for rain. Drought is not uncommon today, with fires occurring this summer in Arizona, California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Georgia. We pray at the end of the Geshem prayer for rain to be given לשבע ולא לרזון, for abundance, and not for famine-and I would add to that for sustenance, not for flooding.
We say two additional aspects of prayer for Geshem. We pray that the rain falls לברכה ולא לקללה, for blessing and not for curse, and לחיים ולא למוות, for life and not for death. Rain in our tradition is considered a good thing that one should pray for and one cannot pray for it to go away. What one can pray for is that rain that falls be for nourishing and life-producing, rather than for death and destruction.
Looking at all the natural disasters that befell our country we can have at least two reactions: anger and a call to action against climate change/global warming and/or aw at how people from different backgrounds and walks of life came together after these atrocities. For example, let us examine the following story: “As floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey rose across Houston and parts of Texas, people formed human chains, carried pets above their heads and hopped into boats to save people they’d never met. “ One story which in particular touched me was of a Houston woman who went into labor as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey surrounded her apartment. She was helped to a rescue truck by a human chain of neighbors and firefighters.
Thirty-two year old Dr. Annie Smith said she was mentally preparing herself to have to undergo a home birth on Sunday as she and her husband, Greg watched the rising floodwaters make the two mile drive to a hospital no longer an option. “When I saw all the flooding, I turned to Greg (also a doctor) and was like, ‘I’m really starting to get scared now,’” Annie Smith told ABC News. “It kind of dawned on me that this is it — I’m in actual labor.”
Greg Smith went into “super doctor mode,” according to his wife, and began collecting supplies around the house, like scissors and sewing needles, that could be used for the birth. He asked his mom, who was visiting, to boil water to sterilize the supplies.
A neighbor who went to check on the Smiths on Sunday morning sent an email to their apartment complex’s message page asking for help. Within 30 minutes, at least 15 people were in their apartment and ready to help with the delivery.
“There are a lot of medical trainees in the [apartment] complex, so a general surgery resident next door came over, and some emergency residents and finally an OB-GYN intern showed up too,” Greg Smith said. “People dug through their supplies and brought sutures and scalpels and anything that could be needed.”
The couple had been continuously dialing 911 and the Texas National Guard’s emergency number since 8 a.m. but never got an answer…A phone call made by Annie Smith to the director of her fellowship program, was what finally got a rescue crew to the Smiths’ front door. Less than an hour later, around noon, Greg Smith looked up and saw a truck arriving outside. “I was with Annie, and I looked out the window, and I saw this big truck come pulling up, and I said, ‘Holy cow, I think someone is here for us.’” The water by that point was so high that the Smiths’ neighbors and firefighters formed a human chain to help Annie Smith to the back of the flatbed truck.
“I just kind of held on to them one person at a time and crawled along their arms until the firemen helped me up the ladder onto the truck,” she said. “I was sitting on a fire hose in the back of the truck with a shower curtain over my head and looking at all the floodwater around us thinking, ‘This is so bizarre.’”
The Smiths arrived at Texas Children’s Hospital about 15 minutes later…Adrielle, the couple’s first child, was born nearly 12 hours later, at 1:59 a.m. Monday, weighing in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces.
Adrielle, whose name is Hebrew in origin and means “belongs to God,” has already been given nicknames like “Little Harvey” and “the Hurricane” by family members.
“We’ve always wanted a little baby,” Greg told People magazine. When Annie didn’t get pregnant soon after her second miscarriage, the couple applied to ultimate authority.
“We felt like we had to surrender this to God,” Greg said. “Everything about this pregnancy is God’s will. That’s why her name is Adrielle. It means she belongs to God.”
In this situation, no one asked “are you a Democrat or a Republican” before rescuing the Smiths. Similarly no one asked “are you Jewish or Christian?” All that mattered was that they were humans in need and that is what brought people to rescue them.
We need to think back to our own New York story, the first responders from 9/11 and from Superstorm Sandy. On Patriot Day, the new national name for September 11, people gathered at the memorial this year on the sixteenth anniversary. The sentiment, from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Officer David Prudencio Lemagne, was “Our country came together that day. And it did not matter what color you were, or where you were from…I hope as we commemorate the 16th anniversary of 9/11, everyone will stop for a moment and remember all the people who gave their lives that day. Maybe then we can put away our disagreements and become one country again.”
It should not take a national disaster like the atrocity that was the Las Vegas shooting, or a natural disaster like a hurricane, earthquake, wildfire or tornado, to bring people together. Rather, what should bring us together is our shared humanity and our desire to help one another make a difference in each other’s lives. Rather than being a country divided we must work towards being a country united.
What our country needs is for people to come together even when there’s not a national crisis. Think about the people from who we’ve become estranged during the past year. Are there ways for us to come back together, to reunite with them, recognizing that our shared humanity and relationships transcend any disagreement or argument we may have had? Let us also think about this as we remember loved ones who have physically left this world. If we have festering wounds, are there ways for us to find closure from them? If we have disputes with members of our family who are still living, what would our loved ones who have passed on say or do in order to bring us together?
Yizkor is not only about remembering but also about acting to create a better future. We remember in order to prevent future rifts, to bind the gaps that currently exist. As we pray for rain, let us also pray for no more natural disasters and concurrently that we do not need one to bring us together when we drift apart. May we strive to set a positive example for future generations and make our parents and grandparents proud of our actions as we set course on a path to be a people united with shared goals and a shared mission to benefit humanity. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.
We continue with Yizkor on Page 506.
 See Taanit 23a, the story of Honi HaM’agel