Last Shabbat, Congregation Emanu El in Houston cancelled services; however my friend and colleague Rabbi Oren Hayon invited people to join him on Facebook Live to study, pray and reflect as they braced for a storm whose destructive power they could not have imagined.
Rabbi Hayon’s choices of texts speak powerfully one week after the devastation began. Who would have thought that these texts would accurately reflect the extraordinary response of the people of Houston to one another? Acts of rescue were forms of prayer and enabled people to connect with the Divine. As Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Habad Lubavitch teaches: “Before beginning to pray, one ought to say, ‘I hereby accept upon myself the commandment of loving my neighbor as myself.’ The commandment to love one’s fellow man is the gateway through which one approaches God in prayer.”
Houston residents could not go to shul on Shabbat or church on Sunday, however, so many approached God through rescue and response by showing their love and concern for their neighbors.
At least two of my colleagues lost their homes.
However, the selflessness of neighbors and strangers saved their lives and bolstered their faith in humankind. Three of Houston’s five largest synagogues suffered significant flooding, however, most managed to open up portions that were dry for those needing shelter. While Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, which seats 16,000 people kept its doors closed for two days, twenty-one mosques and countless other churches, and the aforementioned synagogues opened their doors to provide shelter. God was with the people of Houston. Their response and rescue efforts were manifestations of the Divine presence that dwells within everyone.
What did those displaced from the rising water need most? One’s basic material needs: dry shoes and clothing; fresh water and nourishing food; a safe, warm and dry place to sleep. Neighbor helped neighbor, stranger helped stranger. They heeded the words of Rabbi Israel Salanter who taught, “My neighbor’s needs are my spiritual needs.”
How have you helped? Perhaps you’ve already made a donation, or simply checked in with loved ones to let them know you care. Those with special skills like our member Danny Sarner, made their way to Houston to lend a hand. Danny is a helicopter pilot and he’s there helping in the airborne rescue efforts. Not many of us have Danny’s special skills and he’d never accept the accolades, however, he is our local hero and has lifted his spirits and the spirits of his Houston “neighbors” by showing up to help.
Houston will require extraordinary clean-up and rebuilding efforts in the months ahead. In the meantime click here
for some are ways you can help.
You can also donate to Temple Beth El and indicate “Harvey Relief.” As my colleagues inform me of their congregants’ most vital needs, we can give directly and personally. Or donate gift cards in any denomination from Target, Home Depot, Lowes or Walmart. I will send gift cards or money to the specific congregations in Houston where I have direct contacts.
When we join to celebrate Shabbat tonight, we will offer our prayers, collect donations, and celebrate the extraordinary generosity and support that neighbor offered neighbor in the past week.
Wishing you a Shabbat of peace and wholeness.