Most of you have probably heard the provocative phrase, "Dress British, but think Yiddish."
With your permission – and forgiveness – allow me to create a different, but perhaps more relevant, equation from a French expression historians attribute to monarch Louis XV.
The expression is: Après moi, le deluge. It was meant to be a callous and cavalier statement, colloquially translated as: "After me, who gives a damn." But if you take the expression literally, it has a certain and powerful resonance today. The phrase literally translates as: "After me, the flood."
As Jews, we need to redress this phrase and read it with our unique Yiddish accent and value-laden Hebraic perspective. As Jews we should read the phrase: Après le deluge – moi," or "After the flood – me." I guess what I'm really saying is: "Speak French, but be a mensch."
Let me explain.
As we all view the unfolding and ongoing heartache and misery that is post-Hurricane Katrina, we have two powerful insights from this week's Torah reading. The first is a theological response, the other a therapeutic one.
'Anthropology of Man'
When confronted with the enigmatic dilemma over how God could allow such a catastrophe, one answer comes from a phrase from the portion that might be very well-construed as a theological response. The expression is: Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem elokecha, or "You shall be wholehearted with God."
Translation: Don't ask too many of these types of questions because they ultimately will baffle and confound you; worse, they may produce a type of acquiescence that could lead to the paralysis of inaction. Know that God has created a world that moves with physical law, and things happen. But tamim tihiyeh – to steal Winston Churchill's famous line: "Never flinch, never weary, never despair." Maintain your stubborn and steadfast trust and faith in God, however difficult and incomprehensible at times.
But enough of theology.
I am reminded of Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel's remark that the purpose of Torah is not as "man's theology of God, but rather, as God's anthropology of man." What was this scion of the Opter Chasidic dynasty teaching? Probably what his ancestor, the famed Opter Rebbe, had in mind when he taught a group of Chasidim that the radical claim of Judaism was the "mitzvah of atheism!"
Can you imagine the bewilderment this phrase caused? But listen to the delicious explanation of this Chasidic giant.
"Jewish atheism" means that when humankind is in pain, do not say God will comfort you; rather, you must provide the comfort. "Jewish atheism" means that when human beings are in need, do not say, God will provide; rather, you must provide. "Jewish atheism" means that when people are suffering the pangs of hunger, do not say, God will have compassion; rather, you must provide tangible compassion.
Indeed, the second salient phrase the Torah teaches this week is: Tzedek tzedek tirdof ("Justice, justice, you will pursue"). Of course, our sages cast this phrase in a legalistic and jurisprudential light, but you don't have to travel far to note the word "tzedakah" in the phrase.
Après le deluge – moi means that yes, our hearts ache for the victims of Katrina, but that's not enough. We have an obligation to do what we tangibly and concretely can to alleviate the suffering. It is, simply put, the right and just thing to do.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.