Rabbinic Reflections: Unprepared

I lost the book in a house fire. I remember being moved deeply when I read it the first time. I remember years later being inspired by it ahead of the Jewish High Holy Days. Smoke from the fire damaged my copy with its underlines, commentary, and sticky notes. I wish I still had it.

The book was “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared” by Alan Lew. Life these days seems all too real and also to defy preparation. My family sort of had a fire safety plan; we got out safely and in time for the fire department to contain the damage. Years later, though, we are still discovering what we lost, like my copy of the book.

I grew up in Houston, Texas. My father still lives there, now on the northern edge of Harris County. He was home when Hurricane Harvey hit and stayed. He had enough food. He lives high enough off the ground. He was lucky, and we were unprepared to have him cooped up in his apartment for days on end. When he finally was able to venture out, he could not get to the store, the roads were impassable. My childhood home is in the evacuation zone from the runoff of the dams west of Houston. How could the new owners be prepared to get through Harvey and only after fear losing their home?

This year, normally focused on new beginnings with school starting, has been and continues to be about disaster: Harvey, the anniversary of Katrina, now Irma, and tomorrow remembering 9/11. Yes, there are ways to prepare for hurricanes and to prevent terror attacks; and, there is still too much one cannot account for to avoid all damage. Disaster demands an awakening, but to what?

The subtitle of Lew’s book is ‘The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.’ In 10 days, it will be Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, the first of the “days of awe.” Lew’s book is powerful on many levels, in particular, the way it reminds us of the cycle of life, death, and renewal. These days leading up to Rosh HaShanah (and for weeks after) have built in reminders of the cycle, starting with the disastrous loss of both Temples on Tisha B’Av. [The 9th of Av, a day of fasting commemorating the destruction of the first temple by the Babylonians and the second temple by the Romans in Jerusalem.] Pointedly, judgment and harvest bounty come after.

This year, I do not have the book in hand to read. The title alone, though, called to me to see these disasters as the beginning of real change. I do not mean the change where we notice all the good neighbors and first responders. I do not mean the change where we acknowledge we are vulnerable and later down the line forget. I do not mean the change where we think we learned our lesson. I see now that these disasters are shofar [ram’s horn] blasts calling us to transform our souls into animating forces that live, that embrace the fullness and preciousness of life, and that bring God’s light into the dark corners of our world even when things are good.

This year, let us be inspired by awe to do more than survive in a world for which we are unprepared. Let us be inspired by awe to do more than tip the scales of judgment in favor of humanity’s better moments. Let us be inspired by awe to be real, to be vulnerable and heroic, to be strong and broken, and to be unprepared. By being real, we just might find that we are God’s harvest bounty, every day.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to editor@chaddsfordlive.com

 

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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