Some Say The World Will End By Fire

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Tuesday, September 1, 2017 / 10 Elul 5777

The This is Hunger truck has arrived. It will be on exhibition mode this evening. This non-interactive mode allows us to properly observe Shabbat while seeing the exhibit. If you’d prefer to visit when this important exhibit is in full interactive mode, reserve your tickets here.

Summary: Rabbi Kosak offers some wide-ranging reflections on Hurricane Harvey and how it is already being used in our culture wars. He both challenges and supports an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, then argues forcibly against the dangerous and partisan approach we take to natural disasters and crises. Instead, he puts forward the proper response that both our religion and also our humanity demand at times like these.

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Robert Frost

Over this past week, our eyes and hearts have been fixated on the continuing disaster that is Houston. The scale of this storm is the largest in our nation’s collective memory, and the financial burden to rebuild will be immense. While the death toll will undoubtedly increase as days go by, it seems that the one bright light in all of this is that Hurricane Harvey did not claim nearly the lives that were lost when Katrina ravaged.

Yet how can we put a number to the disruption and despair that so many are experiencing? My emotions have fluctuated as much as the surges of water. Tremendous sadness at the suffering. Awe and wonder at the immense scale and forces involved. Even, especially after I’ve watched for any length of time, a glazed numbness coats my eyes. The sheer spectacle of it admittedly leaves me at moments with no emotional involvement. Then the sadness returns.

As all of these reactions churned within, the above poem by Robert Frost came unbidden to my mind. It is one of his better known and beloved pieces. There’s a rumor that it was written after an encounter Frost had with one of the world’s great astronomers. The poet asked the scientist how the universe would end. At that point, we still could not answer the question definitively, so the astronomer presented the two main theories.

The first was that the universe would reach a point of maximum expansion, and then, somewhat like a rubber band, would careen inward as stars and heat immolated everything. The second, which we now believe our instruments and our math have proven to be correct, argues that the universe will expand endlessly, without limit. In that view, stars would slowly blink out, and what little heat they put out would not compensate for the endless chill of near infinite space.

Frost, in his poetic genius, took these scientific theories and humanized them in concrete terms we can all understand. He moves us from the vast forces of nature over which we have little influence, to that realm over which we do have control–how do we choose to live? Will we nurture our love and our passions, or will we allow ourselves to turn against those around us? Even as we struggle to assign a specific meaning to each line, the general gist is great. It is Frost’s reluctance to be overtly clear that gives this poem its enduring resonance.

Why does this matter in the wake of Hurricane Harvey?

Already, people are ascribing meaning–or “no-meaning”–to this superstorm. Some simply shake their heads and lament that this is a once in a thousand year event, as though to indicate that there is nothing we humans could have done in the wake of such a cataclysm.

For those who believe in global climate change (and I am one), there is a propensity to note that our science predicts a greater frequency of more powerful storms. While the overwhelming majority of climate scientists hold by that, there are a handful of studies which argue that we are not seeing more storms–not in frequency and not in intensity. One such study, by Roger Pielke Jr, was mentioned in an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal in which Pielke claimed that the link between extreme weather events is “unsupportable based on research and evidence.”

Let’s leave aside that Pielke is a political scientist and not a climate scientist. Let’s leave aside that he confuses “influence” with “cause” in much of his climate writing. Human climate change doesn’t cause such storms, but it categorically influences and worsens their effects. Just as we can’t say for certain that any given smoker’s lung cancer was caused by cigarettes, we also know that statistically, the likelihood of lung cancer drastically increases for those who smoke.

Let’s leave all of that aside, because the WSJ is right to condemn those on the left who have been quick to blame Houston for its role in the petrochemical industry or for its zoning laws. There are those, in other words, who are intimating that Houston is getting its proper moral comeuppance.

It’s distasteful and disturbing, the way in which people will blame natural disasters on the behavior of people they don’t feel connected to, while letting people who are part of their camp off the hook. Do you remember when AIDS was in its infancy and leaders from the religious right blamed homosexuals and claimed God was punishing them for their behavior? That was offensive grandstanding then. It is equally distasteful when those on the Left want to blame Houston for Harvey. Now is not the time for blame. All of us, after all, get benefit from petrochemicals, either directly or indirectly.

No, the only proper response when we see human suffering is to alleviate the pain in front of us. Because we truly are “all in it together.” Even fire-ants understand this. We should strive to behave at least as collaboratively as they do.

Later there will be time enough to think through our societal response. But for now, we are all called upon to roll up our sleeves and pitch in. Hopefully, you received and read the letter we sent out earlier this week about how CNS will do our share. I want to publicly thank Rabbi Posen, who had previously lived in Houston, for contacting Rabbi Estes and for crafting that letter.

Yet is it wrong for religious people to seek God’s hand in nature?

Absolutely not. For Jews, the psalm we recite on Friday morning heightens the dilemma and tension of these perspectives. Within Psalm 93, we read,

The rivers may rise and rage,

the waters may pound and pulsate,

the floods may swirl and storm.

Yet above the crash of the sea

and its mighty breakers

is Adon-ai our God, supreme.

For our ancient ancestors, God’s hand was directly involved in all meteorological happenings. That lent a moral meaning to large and destructive natural events. What separated their response to ours, where we blame others for their misfortune? Our ancestors examined their own failings when bad things happened, and refrained from blaming those who were suffering.

As one Hasidic teaching put it, “Care more for your neighbors wallet and your moral failings rather than for your wallet and your neighbor’s failings.” At a time like this, we can do no less.

Praying for the people of Houston,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What do you think the above Hasidic teaching is trying to convey?
  2. Have you ever been on the opposite end of this teaching, where someone blames you for the suffering you are enduring? How have you responded?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.