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Articles > Tsunami: The Rush of the Waters.....the Prayer of Man

By Rabbi Mitch Smith

Jogging on the beach along the Gulf of Mexico on a sunny Sunday morning, watching families at play as the waves lap gently against the shore, one’s thoughts shift from such an idyllic scene to the fury of the tsunami that hit similar beaches half a world away. That the very tranquility that drew thousands of tourists to beaches just like this one could so suddenly give way to destructive fury continues to haunt the imagination.

The mounting death toll on Asia’s coasts, and televised images of dazed children wandering about in search of missing parents and thousands of people scavenging for food and water, tug at the heartstrings of an entire planet.

A man (a minister?) in the midst of the destruction and suffering tells a TV reporter, “How can I still tell people that God cares for them?”

With the thought that the disaster we see replayed on our nightly news is of Biblical proportions, we think of the Biblical response to tragedy found in the words of the Psalmist who, in his own moment of despair, seeks consolation:

“Turn to me, O Lord and be gracious unto me, for I am all alone in my distress. The troubles of my heart are magnified, bring me out of my travail.” or elsewhere: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where shall my help come? Surely from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”

The force of nature that could wrap entire train cars around trees is almost beyond comprehension. Did scenes of such raging waters inspire the psalmist who saw in the tumult the presence of God, declaring:

“The voice of the Lord is on the waters, the Lord of glory thunders on the mighty water…the voice of the Lord rips apart the cedars...the voice of the Lord causes the wilderness to quake.” (Psalm 29) or elsewhere: “The floods lift up their voice… as the mighty breakers of the sea is the might of the Lord on high." (Psalm 93)

With all our ability to control nature, we are, ultimately, as vulnerable to some forces of nature – floods, fires, earthquakes - as our ancestors.

Surely a contemplation of life’s fragility - and sometimes its randomness - is at the heart of the words of the prayer we recite on Rosh Hashanah, when we ask, “Who shall live, and who shall die?....Who by fire, and who by water?” How these words resonate when we hear accounts in recent days of lives snuffed out in the raging waters, and by contrast, stories of those who survived while all around them perished.

In its early days, much of religion dealt with man’s need for control in the face of life’s uncertainties. As in our very life, so too in sport, we seek to maintain control in facing an uncertain outcome. In victory, we celebrate our superiority over fate. Sometimes, the most successful athletes find themselves seduced into a sense of arrogance, losing sight of those instances where our own abilities are of no avail, our greatest of feats of little value. Several years ago, when an underdog basketball team from Southern University upset Georgia Tech in the NCAA tournament, Coach Ben Jobe told his players, “While you’re celebrating this win, just remember to keep it in pers! pective. There are still people dying in wars, and there are still people dying from hunger.” By contrast, in defeat, after a controversial call and a close loss to Vanderbilt in the 2004 NCAA tournament, North Carolina State head coach Herb Sendek offered the following words to his disconsolate players: “Life isn’t always fair, and no one is immune from hurting. Hopefully, this is going to help you face tough moments in life.”

Of course, losses on the playing field can never compare to losses on a global scale. The proportions of the present events are incalculable, far beyond what most of us face in life. But both occurrences leave us with the need to find meaning in events that assault our sense of order, and often that perspective lies in the knowledge that others before us have faced similar circumstances. And it may be that knowledge – in some small measure – that can provide the fortitude and desire to go on that will be needed by the many hundreds of thousands of survivors of this most recent disaster.

For those of us a world away, it is the aid that we give that can offer some degree of help to the hundreds of thousands facing threats to their physical and mental health, now and in the coming weeks and months. It is a response which one news source labeled as “unprecedented.” (Consider that Manchester United Football Club is donating £150,000 to tsunami relief efforts, and actress Sandra Bullock has reportedly pledged $1 million.) For those in the epicenter of this tragedy, perhaps they, too, can lift their eyes to the hills – and to their fellow man - and find help.

Some 65 years ago, the young Hebrew poet and Holocaust heroine Hannah Szenes was walking along the beach from her kibbutz on the shores of the Mediterranean to the ancient seaside site of Caesaria a short distance away, and was inspired to write words that have since become immortal. Was the sea tranquil or stormy on the day that she composed the following:

O Lord, O Lord, may these things never end:
The sand and the sea,
The rush of the waters,
The lightning crash of the heavens,
The prayer of man.

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