By Rabbi Nochem Tenenboim
Edited By Jeffry Lane
It was two days after the storm hit, the hurricane that may be the worst storm any of us would see. Chabad received a call about midnight asking for help. There was an old woman who hadn’t been heard from since before the storm. Her daughter was worried and was asking for help—for someone to go to where she lived and to check on her. Long Beach, where the old woman lived, was completely isolated. The ocean almost washed over the island, mountains of sand filled the streets and, of course, no electricity, no communication, and no running water. Even these couple of days after the storm it was impossible to travel and the National Guard was patrolling the streets.
Two others from the community and I talked about what to do. Could we wait until morning when there would be some light to make our way to the building? No, the daughter insisted, we must go now.
The roads were difficult and some streetlights helped us make our way to the bridge leading to the island. At the bridge we were halted by the police. There was a curfew, they told us, and besides that, it was pitch black. Many roads were washed out, and the trip would be dangerous. We told them, “We are on a mission. We’re here to help an old woman. We are Chabad.” The police allowed us to pass.
As sometimes happens after a big storm, the air that night was still and the peace and quiet was all we heard. It was after midnight and completely dark except for the headlights of our vehicle. We followed the directions, but suddenly the road was blocked. We saw a mountain of sand in front of us—the ocean had washed the beach sand onto the island and the flooding built up the sand dunes. It was impossible to continue on the roads. We talked about proceeding on foot into the darkness, only with flashlights. We all agreed we had to, no matter how dangerous. Outside the car all we could hear were trucks in the distance.
As I lifted my head, the only light was from stars shining in the sky, revealing the mountains of white sand. All of a sudden it hit me what I was really seeing.
In Vayeira, that week’s Torah portion, G‑d promised Avraham, after the offering of his son, that He would multiply his descendants like the sands on the seashore and the stars in heavens. The parashah is filled with so much history and the history of the world. But there are two big questions. At the beginning of the parashah, we know that G‑d revealed himself to Avraham—an indescribable event. Why should G‑d Al-mighty, One that we can’t really understand, reveal Himself to Avraham? But what was more amazing, according to some accounts, Avraham told G‑d, “Can you wait for a minute . . . I see three guests, three Arabs, coming and I need to take care of my guests.” What could be so urgent as to make G‑d wait?
Later on we see the terrible people of Sodom, so terrible that G‑d destroyed the entire cities. But G‑d doesn’t tell us exactly what sins they committed. The only clues are when G‑d’s angels were at Lot’s house, the crowd outside insisted that they send out Lot’s guests, the angels, into the crowd to be killed. What could make those from Sodom want to kill the guests of someone’s house? And why would this specific sin cause G‑d to destroy the whole city?
In the darkness of Long Beach, under the stars and mountains of sand, with two other souls that had left their own families in the dark at this dangerous time to go and try to help a stranger, I understood. All that we have is not our own; it is here to help others. While one grain of sand has little power, together they can form mountains. The countless stars across the sky are like the Jewish people, spread out to all corners of the world.
The old woman was fine. We reached her with hot food and she was grateful we helped. The daughter was more than happy to hear about the success of our mission.
Our life is not for ourselves; it is to help others. When the three guests came to Avraham, it was most important to help them. Avraham understood the concept of kindness and giving to others. That’s really why G‑d gave the blessing to Avraham.
When Lot hosted the three angels in his home, it enraged the people of Sodom. It was the exact opposite of the philosophy of the people of Sodom: what’s mine is mine, and it’s for me, not to give to others. It may be that if G‑d hadn’t destroyed them, they would have destroyed themselves.
During the day you cannot see the stars, but when things are rough, when it’s darkest, the stars of the Jewish people become most visible. At the end of the day, it was the sand that stopped the ocean. One grain of sand cannot even hold back a drop of water, but together, the Jewish people can be strong as mountains of sand.
During these past weeks we saw so many stars shine in our community, and while we know that there’s more to do, we are grateful to those who can and have helped those in need. “That I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Bereishis 22:17). v
The community of Long Beach was hit terribly by the storm, suffering indescribable losses. To learn how to donate through Rabbi Eli and Beila Goodman of the BACH shul in Long Beach, please visit fundrazr.com/campaigns/9NaY9.