January 24, 2019

Shabbat morning sermon, post-Hurricane Harvey

This sermon was delivered by Congregation Brith Shalom Rabbi Ranon Teller on Shabbat morning, Sept. 2, after Hurricane Harvey. Congregation Brith Shalom hosted members of Congregation Beth Yeshurun because its building was badly damaged and the homes of four of its rabbis flooded.

The formula is simple and clear: Those who didn’t flood help those who flooded. That’s it. That’s how we move forward. The partnership between our synagogues is a demonstration of this formula and dictates the strategy we need to move forward as a Jewish community, as a Houston community and as individuals.

The floodwaters were random. The flood was chaos. Our partnership and the strategy to help those in need bring order. It doesn’t matter which synagogue was affected; it doesn’t matter which rabbis and congregants were affected … it could have been me, it could have been our shul. And if it had been our shul, you would have done the same thing, and I’d be speaking from your bimah today. So, thank you, Congregation Beth Yeshurun, for being here to remind us of that equation.

Rabbi [David] Rosen and Rabbi [Brian] Strauss are here on the bimah. Both of their homes flooded and here they are in their suits and ties and shoes. Together, you are both inspirations and beacons of hope. You represent order in the face of chaos.

My home didn’t flood, but both of my next-door neighbors’ homes flooded. We took them in during the storm for a harrowing night without power, huddled together on our second floor. Last night, as I left my house to come to shul, in my shiny shoes, suit and tie, my neighbors were standing in mounds of wet garbage, throwing away most of their stuff, and packing a U‑Haul with the few possessions that escaped destruction. I walked over to console them, and they spoke the three words that I’ve been hearing over and over again: “It’s just stuff.”

Bellaire never floods. But, by Sunday afternoon, our street had lost power and both houses on either side of us were flooded. Because our house has two stories and is new-ish construction, it hadn’t flooded … yet. We were braced for the floodwaters, but so far they had stopped short of our doorstep.

Our neighbors practically fell through our doorway, exhausted, soaking wet, with their essentials on their backs. We helped them dry off and set them up in our second-floor bedrooms.

We had lightly prepared for the flood with some extra batteries, food and water, but now that it looked like the waters were on their way in, we set to work. First, we brought the important documents upstairs. Then, we brought up everything else we could lift. The floodwaters were still rising. The water filled the street, the sidewalk, our front yard … it was a river from our doorstep to the doorstep across the street. We were trapped. It was time to shelter in place.

It was time to consider survival strategies. The limbic brain kicked in. Ten people and a dog. Food! The power had gone out hours before. The food in the fridge would go bad at some point soon. Let’s cook the chicken! We’ll need protein to survive. We have a gas stove and matches. No electricity necessary.

We cooked all the chicken from the freezer to start our survival adventure on full stomachs. We turned on our flashlights, set the table, and sat down do eat our last hot meal before the floodwaters breached the front door. Ten people and a dog. We ate, went upstairs, said goodnight to our neighbor-guests, and comforted the children. We were ready for the flood.

The floodwaters never came in. The following day, the waters began to recede and we were able to evacuate until power and safety were restored. We were some of the lucky few. Yesterday, I checked in with one of our neighbors. His home was demolished and he and his family were loading up a U-Haul truck with the few possessions that had survived. We exchanged a few polite comments. Like the rest, he reassured me that, “It’s just stuff,” and he thanked me for my hospitality.

Then, he reported that his church took in water and asked me about my synagogue. I told him that it was dry, and with a tinge of survivor’s guilt, I added, “I can’t explain it.” He replied, “C’mon, rabbi, I think we both know what happened … ” I smiled uncomfortably at the suggestion that because of my rabbinic status, God had protected my family and me, my home and my synagogue from the flood. I smiled and politely took my leave.

On the short walk back to my dry home, my neighbor’s comment inspired my first opportunity for rabbinic reflection. There had actually been a moment before the flood that might have been appropriate for prayer. We were gathered around the table, eating what we thought might be our last full meal together before we went into flood survival mode. I could have gathered us in prayer. I even recalled it having crossed my mind. But I didn’t. I didn’t pray to God to save my home from the water. I was occupied with my preparations. I was occupied with the safety of my family. I was preparing my house for the flood. I was wrapping the couch in tarps. I was gauging the height of the water. I was texting the authorities to prepare an evacuation plan in case the floodwaters reached the second story of our house or we ran out of food. I was not in prayer mode. Except for once … when it was time to sleep.

The guests were set up in their rooms. My wife and our four girls (including our dog, Jessie) were in Ariella’s room, and my son, Jake, and I were in his room. The house was quiet and it was still raining. I told Jake that if by some crazy chance we didn’t flood the next morning, I was going to put on my tefillin and daven the most grateful and heartfelt Shacharit of my life. And that’s what I did.

We don’t pray for God to work for us. We pray for us to work for God. We don’t pray for God to modify the laws of physics and the science of meteorology. We pray to God to help us intensify our response and our compassion and our empathy. Our rabbis teach that planet Earth acts independently of God’s will. In the Hebrew, the rabbinic quote is poetic: “Olam noheg k’minhago.” It translates to something like, “The world turns on its own” or “The world pursues its natural course.”

During a flood is not a time for prayer. As Moses learned before crossing the sea, when it’s time for action, we don’t stop to pray. During a flood is time for action. But, after the flood, for the overwhelming relief effort, prayer is essential.

Before Shabbat, as we were preparing for last night’s service, I turned to Cantor [Mark] Levine and asked, “Are you sure we should be doing this right now? Maybe we should all be helping someone clean out their house.” In the end, it’s a judgment call, and I’m still not completely convinced we should all be here, but I do know this. There is some deep truth to the flood survivor chorus we’ve been hearing: “It’s just stuff.”

The floodwaters came and went. We mourn the loss of over 40 lives. And we who are here today … survived. And now, the relief effort and the healing and the mourning are just beginning. It is a process that will take a long, long time. Today, the process begins, and we’re going to need everything that religion has to offer to rebuild. We’re going to need everything that community has to offer to rebuild our synagogues. We’re going to need everything that prayer has to offer to give us the strength and the determination and the constancy to rebuild our homes.

We’re going to need chesed. We’re going to need leadership and unity. We’re going to need God and all the goodness that God represents. We’re going to need God and all the goodness that God manifests in this world.

Ribono Shel Olam, we have felt separated from You. You have hidden Your face. The deep, dark waters of chaos rose up and smashed Your handiwork of order and justice. Help us to find our way back to You, Adonai, our Rock and our Redeemer. For those affected by the flood, we pray for restoration and healing.

For those not affected by the flood, we pray for strength and determination and wisdom. We pray for compassion. We pray for understanding. We pray for the ability to help others and keep ourselves free of judgment; to meet needs that are rational and nonrational, defined and undefined, typical and idiosyncratic. We pray for mercy and lovingkindness.

And hey, God, this may run counter to the sermon I just delivered, but some sunshine and a cool breeze couldn’t hurt. And together we say: Amen.

Rabbi Ranon Teller is the spiritual leader of Congregation Brith Shalom in Bellaire, TX. Reprinted with permission of author.