Thursday, May 23, 2013

View from the Bimah: Weather! Most of you know that I lived in the Oklahoma City area for decades. Therefore, the recent E5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, was of more than passing interest. The Oklahoma City metro area holds the dubious record of having more tornadoes than any other city in the country. How do people adjust? Peculiarities of Life in Tornado Alley The national weather service is located in Norman, Oklahoma, about 10 miles south of Moore. If you’re wondering why the government located the weather service in that spot, it’s simple: tornadoes . Added to that, Oklahoma meteorologists deserve lots of kudos. Under “normal” tornadic conditions, they predict the path with nearly pinpoint accuracy. With severe storms, like E5’S – with paths over a mile wide – the weathermen give general areas. Normally, Oklahoma Cityans learn which streets and even blocks are in the path. That gives rise to what might seem like an unusual custom. Oklahomans not in the storm’s path often sit on their roofs and watch. I’m not kidding. My husband used to do that. My son-in-law still does. (My daughter Jenny drew the line at sending my grandson to the roof: he could watch from the yard). More on this shortly. Casualties and surprises Granted, one death is too many. But Oklahoma has a surprisingly low casualty rate for even the most vicious storms. True, in the May 20 storm, there were 24 dead and many more hurt. Anywhere else, the number of deaths would have been much higher. How does this happen? Safety Oklahomans do not have basements. In the Oklahoma City area, the soil is thick red clay. Water would seep into the basements rendering them worthless as refuges. What do they do? Today, people are trending to building safe rooms. They’re not cheap. Not everyone can afford them. There are still other problems with this. Suppose you’re out and about when the tornado comes? I can tell you from personal experience what happens in a mall. They do have designated shelter areas. Every store quietly closes down and people walk en masse to the designated area. Everyone stands jammed shoulder to shoulder until the all clear sounds. Then mall life returns to normal as if nothing happened. In this particular case, the tornado actually passed over the mall. Most Oklahomans know at each moment what to do if they find themselves in a tornado’s path. We know to try to avoid underpasses if we’re in a car. In a house, we look for the innermost room, get away from windows – move into a closet or a bathtub. Oklahomans live with this in the same way Wisconsinites live with snow. Yes, tornadoes are more dangerous. But this brings us to the next point. It’s the landscape Snow creates a beautiful Wisconsin winter landscape. Spring in Oklahoma is different. Thunderstorms and tornadoes form a very different – very powerful – landscape. People live with and adapt to the conditions at hand. After all, what choice do they have? Move? Move where? What do they do about family, friends, livelihood? We must adjust to our landscape – wherever we live. Not adjusting is a surefire way to stay miserable and afraid. Personally, I can’t imagine living that way – anywhere. Can there possibly be an upside? Judaism has a blessing to recite in the throes of a thunderstorm:” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.” Storms can wreak horrific damage. They maim, kill, and steal memories. Tornadoes, hailstorms, floods all teach: much in life is beyond our control. Life is transient. We come across powerful events we cannot control. We try. We build stronger buildings. We improve our warning systems. But nothing is fool-proof. We ultimately have to come to this recognition as best we can. Let’s return to the concept of Oklahomans sitting on their roofs to watch tornadoes. It’s one of the many ways that help Oklahomans adapt to nature’s commanding power. And it’s a powerful way to experience the awe. Awe Tornadoes bring fear; they cut wide swaths of destruction; they constitute awe. Where is God in such a storm? I don’t believe He caused the storm; I do believe He created the laws of nature. Along with the ancient rabbis, I believe that God considers us His partners in creation. We are supposed to take care of His world. Better care of the world might ease the severity of storms, but severe weather events have always been with us and probably always will be. These storms remind us that humans are not, will never be, the supreme power in the world. We can only stand back in awe: of the storm’s power; at the goodness of human beings in pulling together to help. For those following the May 20 storm, you’ll see a community like few others. It’s typical Oklahoma – people are rushing to help in every way possible. This is hardly a characteristic limited to Oklahoma City! But at least, in Oklahoma, this is a learned response to dealing with nature’s wrath. These storms generate so many feelings. Yes, fear is one of them. But ultimately, we can only stand back and recognize our own limitations. And when the storm is over, we rush in as a community in the fellowship God wants of us. And we recite the blessing: ” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.” L’shalom u’brachah, toward peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina