Who’s Really Behind the Tumultuous Storms?


NITZAVIM, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

Do you believe in God?

Silence … not an unusual response. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his book on Jewish spirituality, God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know, says that if you want an answer to the question of God's existence, you have to begin with a more concrete query: Have you ever felt that you were in the presence of God?

Very often, when I ask people this question they respond with a nature experience: "I felt the presence of God in the mountains; down the shore; while visiting the Grand Canyon or on an Alaskan cruise." Curiously, no one seems to find God in the great calamities of nature – such as tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes.

But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most common theological questions pondered is that of God's existence: If there is a God, how could God have let this happen?

Most people find only doubt in the destructive power of nature. It seems that only the insurance companies find God in these events through their exclusion clause for "Acts of God."

While watching news coverage of the hurricane and its explanation of the science of hurricanes, I had a random euphonic moment centered on the phrase "eye of the storm."

Replace the word "eye" with the letter "I" and it becomes not a place, but a whom. So now the question becomes: Who is the "I" of the storm? Is it God?

In the "eye" of the storm you can find calmness, clarity and comfort, as if to say that standing before God in the middle of a storm raging around you provides peacefulness. But is God really the "I" of the storm? Is that really where you need to go to feel God's presence?

The 'I' of the Storm

The Torah reading this week, Nitzavim, suggests an interesting answer. It opens: Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnay Adonai Elokeichem – "You are standing this day, all of you before the Lord Your God."

"How do you know?" poses the great Chasidic rebbe, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir.

He answers, "When you are kulchem – all together, united in heart and spirit Kol Yisrael, all the people of Israel. When you are united as a people in a good cause, then you are standing in the presence of God."

The "I" of the storm, then, is not God, but us; it's me; it's you. When we see the humanity of those who have been victimized by the awesome power of nature and respond united as a people in the good cause of helping those in need, then we stand in the presence of God.

I am reminded of the verse from the book of Kings: "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – kol d'mama – 'a still small voice.' "

So where is God? In the still small voice of our souls. God is in the "I," the moral imperative that unites us as one and drives us to help others in response to the awesome might of nature. And not only in nature, God is also in the "still small voice" that leads us to stand for the mitzvot to live every day in the presence of God by performing acts of holiness.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnay Adonai Elokeichem – "You are standing this day, all of you before the Lord Your God."

How do you know? Just listen.

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.