By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
In Masechta Taanis we find the famous story of Choni HaMagil, of how Hashem caused him to fall asleep and remain asleep for 70 years, and when he awoke, he found himself in a world that he didn’t recognize. While nine days is a lot less than 70 years—and unlike Choni, I hardly slept at all—I feel a bit like Choni HaMagil.
On Sunday night, October 28, at 11:50 p.m., my wife and I took off on an El Al flight to Eretz Yisrael for a long-planned trip to participate in a grandson’s upsherin and to catch our breaths after a long yom tov season at the pulpit. Like everyone else, we listened carefully for days of news of the approaching storm and its potential for colossal damage in its wake. And even when the pilot announced as we were taxiing that we were the last flight out before JFK shuts down, we just didn’t take things that seriously. After all, “been there, done that.”
My wife, ever the “take care of everything” mom, had long worked out the details for the children, whereby my daughter would stay by a friend in Bayswater, my son in his dorm in Far Rockaway, and the challos and Shabbos meal for the Shabbos of our return were all prepared and stored in the freezer. I arranged for my replacement to give the daily daf yomi in shul and someone to fill in for several speaking commitments that I would not be able to keep. It was all a great plan. However, Hashem had a different set of plans.
My first moment of realization that something wasn’t right was Tuesday morning, as I was driving with my grandson and son-in-law to Bnei Brak to bring my three-year-old grandson to Reb Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, and to Rav Ahron Leib Shteinman, shlita, for berachos and some haircutting. My cell phone rang and I saw that it was a close friend and neighbor, Reb Shimon Gross, calling. I couldn’t understand; it was 3 or 4 in the morning in New York. Why would he be calling me at this hour?
And then I heard firsthand of the devastation suffered by so many friends and family members. Reb Shimon, who is always the first person to help anyone that needs assistance (without ever being asked), now felt completely helpless as the floodwaters ravaged his home. I was overwhelmed with sadness and concern for the community and for Yidden who would face serious challenges ahead.
I went into Reb Chaim and told him of what was unfolding and that Klal Yisrael needed his tefillos and berachos. He responded forcefully with berachos that everyone should become “shaleim begufo ubemamono” (complete physically and financially) and then he said, “in the zechus of the chesed that Klal Yisrael will do for each other, all the berachos will follow.” With the indescribable amount of chesed that has been done (much of which I know about and even more that I don’t know) in every community, iy’H, the berachos will come to Klal Yisrael in unimagined proportions.
And then the calls began, followed by the e-mails, and then the pictures. The heart-rending pictures of the total destruction of friends’ homes in Seagate, Belle Harbor, Far Rockaway, and Cedarhurst. We felt frustrated at not being able to help beyond participating in conference calls and meetings via Skype. It was impossible to get on an earlier flight, we could not offer our home as a refuge, as there was no power, and having to watch the changes in people’s homes, in people’s lives, and in people themselves was very hard to observe at a distance.
That’s when I thought of Choni HaMagil. We left a community intact, where everyone was going about their business, and returned to a community without power, without resources in many homes, with lost parnassah for many, and to a community uplifted by indescribable acts of chesed. To an extent, like Choni, it’s a little surreal.
The difference, though, is Chazal describe Choni’s disappointment with the yeridas hadoros, and here one cannot help but be totally inspired by the aliyah of our generation. In my shul (as in every shul), acts of spectacular chesed abounded where people with power hosted 50-plus people for Shabbos meals; someone gave his second car to a friend. One person in my shul, who himself struggles with parnassah all year round, called me to say he and his wife put away money from an aunt’s yerushah years ago to be used for their children’s weddings and they collectively wanted to give me the money from this fund to distribute to others who lost so much. My heart swells with pride at these selfless acts of chesed. Sometimes it unfortunately takes a colossal tragedy of this size to truly see the wonderful compassion and love that exists in the hearts of Yidden.
Arriving back to a house still without power, but gratefully intact, and getting a first glimpse of the destruction caused by Sandy leaves us with a plethora of emotions. The world has changed, our community has changed, and we have changed. However, with siyata diShmaya and the iron will of determination of a nation proudly carrying on the lesson of chesed of our founding father Avraham Avinu, we will bounce back stronger, better, and more determined than ever to accomplish what Reb Chaim blessed us will happen, that each of us will become “shaleim begufo ubemamono” in the very near future. May it speedily happen. v