“No, this is the fast I desire: … to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” – Isaiah 58:6-7
This Yom Kippur I anticipate the fast in a new set of circumstances. Will my fasting this year be a fast that will "make a difference”? This year my fasting will go beyond my hunger pangs...it will reach into my soul... I ask myself, “Why do we fast? Why does God want us to fast?” This year I have come to understand that the fast is about compassion; it is about building the capacity within to feel what hunger is like so that we will be motivated to alleviate the suffering of others for whom the fast is not a choice but a daily reality.
I am living and working along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in post-Katrina Mississippi and Louisiana. I am the pastoral counselor to rabbinic and Jewish leadership. These leaders have met the needs of their communities when the disaster struck and throughout these two years of recovery. Colleagues stood with their congregants as they faced the overwhelming tasks of rebuilding their lives after flooding, storm surge, and high winds washed away everything people had known. People lost their possessions and their dreams. They lost whole neighborhoods. Many lives were lost, too. Life will never be the same as it was before Katrina. The uncertainties everyone faces loom large. These communal leaders stand by their flocks yet they too have suffered loss and damage. And because of their role in community they are expected to be available to those whom they serve to offer solace, compassion and guidance. The capacity to serve the needs of others requires paying attention to themselves as well. In my role, I am the one who gives care to the caregivers.
Being a resource to colleagues is a privilege. Living among the ruins along the coast has been shocking. It has become a window into the meaning that the prophets railed about when they would beseech us to make ourselves aware of the people who are at the margins of society which is where the people along the Gulf have been since they no longer are front page news. The prophets warn us of the corrosiveness of indifference. Indifference is either the result of our self-imposed blindness or a societal norm. The prophets call us to action to fight societal norms that prevent us from becoming our better selves. There are many excuses we can give for why suffering exists; the worst is when we believe that our temporary bout of prosperity and well-being is due to our deservedness, our reward. Friends in Minnesota are amazed at the speed of recovery and attention to rebuilding the fallen bridge that captured the nation’s attention just a few weeks ago compared to the painfully slow recovery along the Gulf Coast, two years after Katrina struck. That fallen bridge is a reminder of the compromised infrastructure – of highways, bridges and levees in need of repair throughout the country. The ruins along Katrina’s wake serve as a reminder that our nation has shifted focus away from the vulnerable and needy.
In Mississippi there are approximately 60,000 people still living in FEMA trailers some are fortunate to live on their own property. Too many others live in FEMA trailer parks in deplorable conditions. Too many people do not have medical insurance. Many are desperate for employment and would like to be trained to do the skilled labor that people have been brought from out of state to perform.
The story of one woman whom I met is representative of many others. Dorothy in her mid-70s had been diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy, arthritis and respiratory problems before Katrina. She walked with a cane and needed hip surgery. She qualified for a handicap trailer and petitioned for it; however FEMA sent a standard trailer. Several times she has requested a change; FEMA has not honored her request. She had hip surgery in February 2006, was in rehab for 100 days and had to leave when her Medicare benefits ran out. Had the trailer been handicap accessible, she could have lived in it. She had no place to go and was forced to go into her storm-damaged house that had not been repaired yet. Her story unravels in unbelievable ways.
Her house was gutted, cleaned, and sanitized – but not fully. It was as if she was tethered to a house that was unsafe to live or breathe in. What was the logic for not fully restoring her house? The organization that did the work said they had too many homes to repair and had to conserve their efforts so that they could work on more homes. As she lay on her air mattress in her living room she thought about the mold that might be creeping from the two rooms that had not been gutted. Twenty-two months after Katrina, she was finally physically capable to walk the steps leading to the trailer -- and moved into it.
Historically when a disaster affects a community by the end of one year most people are able to go on with their lives. At Katrina’s second anniversary we see a startling situation. Because of the slow recovery, depression is on the rise and along with it many troublesome behaviors. A new psychiatric diagnosis has been labeled “Recovery Stress Disorder”. This reflects the ways people are responding to the uncertainty they continue to experience. People keep trying to get on with their lives, but the process is so slow. Conditions are so unstable that landlords demand cashiers checks from renters. Parents are focused on getting their lives back to normal and are so burdened emotionally that they often do not see how their children have been affected. Children feel their parents’ stress, but children do not have coping mechanisms to know how to handle their own feelings and confusion. Teachers report rage even in many of the youngest children. The need for mental health services increases at the very same time that funding is diminishing.
Mississippi does not receive much media attention and the coverage of New Orleans seems to have lulled the nation into apathy. The Big Easy has become a campaign stop to win votes but not to change lives. The prophets want us to change lives. They want us to change ourselves. Local people in both states are working hard to improve their lives. There are many daunting challenges. There is only so much they can do by themselves; they need help.
In today’s haftarah Isaiah says, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?” No, it is not! He goes on to say, “No, this is the fast I desire: … to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” The emphasis is: do not ignore; Act! Do not to fall into a lull of complacency.
Faith-based and other volunteer organizations have come to the region to offer help, and they have provided an amazing source of help. They have brought water, food and clothing; they have helped repair damaged buildings and damaged lives. Government at the local, state and federal levels has helped; much more is needed from each of them. Even though the locals are working toward their recovery they continue to need help from everyone.
In recent weeks, there was a major earthquake in Peru, and in Central and North America there were new floods and hurricanes – Erin and Dean. Burst pipes in New York City. Who knows what is next?
Repair and recovery are not sexy items that keep a quick-fix nation entertained. We cannot take a pill and make these ills go away. We cannot wave a magic wand to change all this. Nor can we deny their reality. But we can awaken our hearts to what we are called to do.
We can choose to uncover the barriers that harden our hearts so that we can soften and become compassionate to others as God intended. Isaiah goes on to say, “And you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature – Then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be like noonday.” Compassion opens us to each other whereas indifference closes us off. In closing ourselves off, we marginalize others whose reality is too painful for us to witness. Compassion stimulates us to share what little bounty we have – because it is not good to live in isolation. Compassion opens our hearts so that we spread laughter, joy and love. Compassion is where heaven and earth touch.
This Yom Kippur we are called to fast, to feel the burning need within that makes us hunger and thirst to make a difference in the world. We are called to make a difference to better the lives of others not just because we are commanded but also out of gratitude for the blessings we have. We are called to untie the fetters that blind us. When we open ourselves to the world around us we stand firmly at the junction where heaven and earth touch. May this fast be one that moves our compassion from existential feelings to actions – actions that will make a difference.
Rabbi Myrna Matsa is the UJC/Federation-funded rabbi and pastoral-trauma counselor serving in support of clergy in