We are All in the Cone of Uncertainty Always and Should Pray Like It

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If you live in South Florida, when you hear the word cone this time of year, you don’t think of ice cream, but hurricane highway.  When a new storm develops and begins heading towards making landfall, the experts offer their best projections of where it is going and when it will get there.  The “cone of uncertainty” is formed, and with each periodic update the communities and people in its path desperately look to see if they are still projected to sustain a hit.  As long as one remains in the cone of uncertainty, there is an unavoidable angst and the tortuous process of waiting and anticipating what is to come.


Just a week after Harvey devastated Houston, Irma threatens our Boca Raton and South Florida communities.  Larger than the country of France, this massive and powerful storm has elicited and inspired a sense of urgency and a tremendous response.  Gas lines are endless, many stores have sold out of supplies, and people are panicking and legitimately afraid.  A sizeable segment of our community has left.  Some flew, others took the Auto Train, and many have just gotten in the car and driven north.  The Jewish community of Atlanta, led by Rabbi Adam Starr and Rabbi Ilan Feldman, has been absolutely incredible and has taken in several hundred families.  They mobilized rapidly and extended themselves to us generously and we couldn’t be more grateful to them.


The shaylos have been pouring in.  Can I leave my radio and TV on over Shabbos?  How will I know if the eruv is down?  If we lose power can I carry a lit candle or flashlight?  Can I add fuel to my generator on Shabbos?  What if I am powering a refrigerator holding someone’s critical medicine?  Fascinating and sad questions, to be sure, but the most moving question I received came this afternoon from a man in our shul whose neighbor is an elderly woman, with no family, living in an old home with an old roof.  His family invited her to stay with them but she stubbornly insists on riding out the storm in her house by herself.  With great concern in his voice, he called to ask me if it would be appropriate to physically pick her up and take her to his house since once the storm comes, nobody would be able to come rescue her should something God forbid happen.


The preparations are enormous, but they are only about protecting ourselves; unfortunately, we can’t actually do anything to prevent or redirect the storm.


Shortly after creation, God told Adam to multiply and to conquer His world.  Indeed, He has given us the keys to understanding His universe and with each scientific, medical or technological breakthrough, we come closer to conquering it.  But, there are three keys that God kept on His keyring and refused to share with us.  “Rebbe Yochanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be retained in His own hands and Has not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead” (Ta’anis 2a).  In truth, the three exceptions are really one.  God has held onto the ability to provide, sustain and resurrect life.


This insight of our rabbis nearly two thousand years ago stands out as profoundly true today.  With all that we can master, manipulate and control, the weather remains an enigma and a mystery.  We identify that a catastrophic storm has formed, but not only do we lack the capacity to dissolve, disrupt or redirect it, we cannot even predict where it will go with any true sense of accuracy or precision.


There is a whole lot we can and should do to prepare for the storm - buy batteries, water, flashlights, take in outdoor furniture, put up shutters - but we are powerless from directly influencing the storm.  The meteorologists and media can talk about the storm, but they cannot impact it.  Nobody can, not scientists, not the Army or Air Force, not even great kabbalists.  The key to the strength and trajectory of hurricane Irma belongs exclusively to the Almighty and nobody else.


When it comes to other crises or emergencies, there is hishtadlus, effort and initiative we can take to solve and resolve the challenge.  The effort and impact we make fool us into thinking that the doctor alone healed the patient or the shadchan deserves the full credit for making the shiduch.  With a hurricane, because the only initiative anyone can take is to protect themselves, not to direct the storm, it should be more obvious and easier to recognize the importance and need to turn to the Key Master and beseech Him to send the storm elsewhere, in a way nobody is threatened or hurt.


On all the checklists and preparation charts provided by agencies and organizations, prayer never appears.  Nevertheless, it should be at the top of our list, not in place of other preparations but certainly in addition to them.  I urge everyone to do what should come naturally at this critical time – ask Hashem from the bottom of our hearts to turn the storm out to the ocean and spare us, our community, and all humanity.


L’Dovid Mizmor, Tehillim 27 that we recite in the morning and evening from the beginning of Elul until Simchas Torah ends with the pasuk “kavei el Hashem, chazak v’yameitz libecha v’kavei el Hashem -- put your hope in Hashem, strengthen yourself and get the courage to put your hope and faith in Hashem.”  Why the redundancy?  If we have placed our hope in Hashem, why does the pasuk call on us to do it a second time?  Our rabbis (Berachos 32b) explain: “if a person sees that they prayed but they were not answered, let them return and pray again.”


In his new sefer on Emunah and Bitachon, Rav Asher Weiss explains that we learn from this pasuk that when our prayer doesn’t immediately yield the results we want, it doesn’t mean we received a no, it means we need to go back and pray again, with more fervor and greater concentration.  One must never give up on prayer, never concede that it wasn’t answered, or stop believing that there is someone worth praying to.


Our rabbis teach (Berachos 2b) that one who recites the Amidah right after saying Ga’al Yisrael, the blessing on redemption, is guaranteed the world to come.  Why is connecting the two themes with no interruption so important?  Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the prerequisite to sincere prayer is the belief that there is someone listening and that He, and He alone, determines if our prayers are heard and what our future brings.  Before we say the Amidah, we recite the blessing that recalls a time when the Jewish people called out to Hashem and He responded by redeeming them.  On the heels of that precedent we pray that we, too, will be heard and that Hashem will intervene on our behalf as He did for our ancestors.


Says Rav Asher Weiss: “Prayer and faith depend on each other.  Prayer is the highest expression of faith and faith obligates prayer, for if in fact a person believes that Ein od milvado, there is nothing in the world but Him, and that He is all powerful and all knowing, that person will put his faith in Him and will feel compelled to pray to Him with all his heart.”


As we in South Florida prepare for Hurricane Irma, it occurs to me that in truth, we aren’t the only ones in a cone of uncertainty.  True, if you don’t live on the East Coast or in the gulf area, you can be confident you won’t be hit by this hurricane. But who knows what could hit you personally or collectively with little warning or projection.  We all live in a cone of uncertainty at all times and should channel our sense of vulnerability and mortality into turning towards Hashem, the only certain in this world.


While Irma is unwanted and should go elsewhere, the renewed intensity of prayer that she is inspiring is most welcome, especially this time of year as we gear up for sitting before the Almighty in judgement.


Kavei el Hashem, we put our hope in Hashem and then we check the next advisory and when we see ourselves still sitting in Irma’s path, chazak v’yameitz libecha, we strengthen ourselves and find the courage to once again v’kavei el Hashem, put our faith and hope in Hashem.


We pray that in the merit of our turning towards Hashem at this urgent time, the next advisory will show Irma turning away from us.