A Jewish View of Hurricanes

By Moshe Sokolow
Thursday, November 1, 2012

With school closed, transportation suspended, and the local park off limits, I cast about for something other than “work” to fill the day.  My thoughts turned to the weather, and I asked myself whether Judaism has anything instructive to say about hurricanes.

Wind and rain are as old as creation.  The ru’ah elohim, usually translated as “the spirit of God,” that “hovered upon the face of the water” (Genesis 1:2), can also be interpreted as “a divine wind,” a form of hyperbole indicating that the wind exceeded anything natural or ordinary.

Rain is more equivocal.  On the one hand, it is implicit in the third day’s creation of vegetation and fruit-bearing trees (1:12), while, on the other hand, the reprise of creation in Genesis 2:5 states explicitly:

No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.

The Talmud, ever alert to such contradictions, resolves that God created a world with the potential for natural growth, but did not enable this potential to be realized until man acknowledged it, and made provision for it:

Vegetation was poised to emerge from below the earth’s surface until Adam came and sought compassion on its behalf [through prayer]; the rain fell, and it grew. (Hullin 60b)

The result was the establishment of an affinity between man and God that makes us partners in creation provided we fulfill our proprietary responsibilities, paramount among which is the obligation “to cultivate the earth and to guard it” (2:15). As R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893) wrote:

The purpose of Creation—that the glory of God should fill the earth—was hereby completed insofar as everything was now dependent upon Man’s deeds, by way of reward and punishment.

God, in His cosmic beneficence, lets it rain.  Man, in his individual and collective arrogance, builds cities on sites singularly susceptible to saturation.

The city of Babylon, built in the wake of the first deluge, was situated in “a valley in the Land of Shin`ar” (Genesis 11:2), which was so called, our Sages tell us, because, “There, the victims of the flood were poured out” (nin`aru; B'reishit Rabbah 37:4).  Despite the obvious disadvantages of establishing a permanent residence in a plain susceptible to flooding, man persisted in the city’s construction on account of his confidence in his ability to build it with “its head in the clouds” (11:4), which, according to the Sages, implied man’s determination to “beat the odds” by outsmarting God:

They said: The sky falls in once every 1656 years, as evidenced by the flood.  Let us build something to prop it up (Rashi, ad. loc.).

Man’s hubris, his awful arrogance in the face of God’s intent, led to the confounding of the plan and the cessation of the construction (11:8).  But man is nothing if not persistent; and in London, Amsterdam, New Orleans, and other low-lying areas, he has thrown caution to the winds by constructing cities against the dictates of “nature.”  If he is prudent, he invests wisely in building and maintaining the levees and escapes the direst consequences.  From time to time, prudence is supplemented by serendipity, and a timely finger in the dike prevents catastrophe.  If, however, he acts impudently and imprudently—squandering precious time and resources on other and more selfish projects—then he is proverbially and poignantly hoist by his own petard.

When lightning is seen, halakhah prescribes a blessing (“Who performs creative deeds”); when thunder’s peal is heard, halakhah prescribes a blessing (“Whose might and valor fill the world”); and when the storm abates and a rainbow is seen, halakhah prescribes a blessing (“Who observes His covenant and keeps His word”).  Curiously, however, no blessing is prescribed over the rain!

The rabbis taught: On the occasion of every distress that befalls the public, we sound the alarm [i.e., we call for prayer and fasting]—with the exception of excessive rain.  Why?  R’ Yohanan says, because we do not offer supplication over an abundance of good. (Ta`anit 22b)

Rain, even in overabundance, is a blessing.  Gloria, Katrina, Irene, and Sandy are reminders that the volume of rain, the force of the winds, and the height of the storm surge are out of our control.  On the other hand, we get to choose where to build and where to live; we can assign priorities for the investment of our individual and collective resources; and we can exercise prudence in preparing for the proverbial “worst case scenario.”

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).


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