It is not often that I am at a loss for words, but last night was one of those occasions.
Yesterday afternoon, a friend asked me to join him and others in Belle Harbor, New York to assist with the post-storm cleanup. We were called to action by a special organization called Chasdei Lev, whose acts of kindness merit an article in and of itself. We were provided an address in Belle Harbor and were unsure at first whether it was a private home, institution or some other facility as we headed that way. As it turned out, we were dispatched to a shul that was destroyed by the merciless Sandy. Our trip through Belle Harbor was heartbreaking.
The streets looked more like beaches than like thoroughfares. An angry Sandy and a furious sea moved all of the sand from the shores to the streets. Or so it seemed. Every home was adorned with a gigantic pile of everyday life on its lawn, awaiting to be accompanied by the angels of sanitation to its final resting place. Walls, insulation, furniture, appliances, toys, computers and all of the staples of life as we know it could be found in these heaping mounds of loss, each representing years of work, effort and love wiped out by a brutal storm that knew no mercy.
But I was unprepared for what would greet us when we finally met our ultimate destination. Congregation Ohab Tzedek is housed in a mighty structure of stone and concrete. It has undoubtedly scoffed at Mother Nature’s fury on countless occasions in the past without even batting an eye. Surely Sandy could not bring this majestic House of God to its knees. Sadly, that is just what she did.
Entering the shul on the lower level was not easy. The water was still about two inches deep and the stench of fuel and rotting wood made breathing an unpleasant adventure. Nevertheless I joined cold, wet and tired friends, acquaintances and total strangers in clearing out this destroyed temple for hours into the unforgiving frigid night.
As I stood in the middle of the shul, maintaining my balance on planks that once supported seforim but now supported men, I was broken. The floor was flowing with a soup comprised of water, fuel and thousands of pages of shaimos. Four destroyed sifrei torah were removed earlier in the day, together with pairs of tefilin left behind by worshipers who clearly expected to daven shachris last Tuesday the same way they had on Monday. However, the entire massive library remained as did some taleisos, the pushka and seemingly stray atzei chaim. To me, it was not mere pages of books floating in the water, nor mere garments and shelves that absorbed the sea; it was thousands of years of history and the sincere dedication of my co-religionists that were wandering aimlessly about in muck and filth. The destruction of this divine home was complete and the books soaked with tradition and history were now saturated with the stench of devastation, misery and grief.
Though the conversation was limited, the significance of the loss was clear to all of us. We spent hours wading through filth and fumes not merely to clean the home of people (that was done the previous night by many in attendance, though not by me) but to respect the home of a People. The purpose was to gather the shamos and provide as respectful a disposal as possible under the trying circumstances. That goal was met. By night’s end, the walls lay bare and the toppled benches and broken chairs were alone in a large room that once housed sacred books but now could only lay witness to the devotion of its former inhabitants and the love shown by those who came after it lay in ruins.
As I passed a bag of water-logged shofaros to the next person on the assembly line last evening, I was reminded of a profound thought of Rav Shniur Zalman of Lidai. In a long and majestic maamar, the Baal HaTanya explains that the shofar of Rosh Hashana represents the cry of the soul that continues where the power of words ends. Language is limited and its ability to convey raw emotion virtually non-existent. The soul however is limitless and can feel far more than words can ever express.
Last night my soul wept. But it did not weep alone. It wept together with those in attendance, with those who lost so much and with the millions of souls that have wept for millennia hoping and praying that their most recent pangs of sorrow would be their last. Let’s hope this one truly is.
If you wish to volunteer or get involved in any way please contact Chasdei Lev at firstname.lastname@example.org and they will help advise as to where/how you can help.
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