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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Survivor

By Rabbi Sender Haber

Last week, as my wife and I walked the streets of Chincoteague, we met a man named Barry. Barry had built a boat and was raffling off tickets for ten dollars apiece. He shared with me that he had been working as a deckhand off the shore of Chincoteague when the Marine Electric went down in 1983. There were 31 deaths and only three survivors. He saw and heard it all and was personally aware that the Marine Electric had not been built and maintained properly.  He fought for several years to ensure that the accident would be remembered and not repeated until, while he was in the middle of a presentation, a second boat sank due to ill maintenance. Barry decided that he had enough; He quit his job as a fisherman and went to school to become an engineer and build his own boats.

I complimented Barry on his proactive approach to the world’s ills and shared with him the idea of ‘Benching Gomel’. According to Jewish law, anybody who has survived a voyage across the ocean must come to shul, get an Aliyah and Bench Gomel in front of a Minyan. This is based on the verse in Tehillim and a Gemara in Berachos. It is important to have a safe boat, but it is equally or more important to remember who sends the storms.

When Noach left the Ark he realized on his own that the very first thing to do would be to thank G-d. He built an altar and thanked Hashem. In apparent response, Hashem appeared to him and said that never again would there be a flood. Noach knew how to react to disaster.

Later in the Parsha we encounter people with the exact opposite approach. Nimrod and his men thought that they saw another flood would be coming. They figured there would be one every 1,650 years or so. They didn’t consider asking G-d for help. Instead, they built a tower. They wanted to use the tower to stop the flood, but in the end the tower destroyed them. It would have been easier to just recognize G-d.

Barry was blown away by the idea of Gomel. He had me write it down so that he could paint it on the side of the boat in both English and Hebrew. Later in the week, Barry emailed me that he had been thinking it over and he doesn’t think it would be proper to put the words on the boat. The raffle is to raise money for a memorial and he wants to carve Hagomel into the granite at the bottom of the statue.

Besides for making Emma Lazarus proud, there is an important lesson to be learned here: We need to know how to react to disaster. We need to build better boats and watch the weather report, but at the same time we need to realize that it is G-d who saved us and that it is G-d who will prevent disaster from happening again.

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