Our thoughts and prayers will be with the people of Italy on this Shabbat, as they continue the heartbreaking work of digging out the city of Amatrice after a 6.2 earthquake toppled the beautiful city and environs in central Italy earlier this week. We know that their mourning has only just begun, and the devastation that nature has wrought is horrible to behold.
In Jewish tradition, this Shabbat Eikev is the second in a series of seven Shabbatot that are intended for comfort, particularly through the Haftarah portions. The 9th of Av, Tishah B’Av is a day of remembrance and mourning for us, as we mark the Destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. These were devastating destructions both of beautiful buildings and communities of people. Yet these were perpetrated by other people; first the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and then the Romans in 70 C.E. While the horror and devastation were just as real, they are, on a certain level, easier to understand. This was war, and the violence and destruction that comes with war.
The difference, of course, is that human perpetrators of violence and devastation have control over events. This earthquake, of course, and natural disasters like it, are beyond human control, and thus exacerbate the feelings of helplessness, disorientation, and grief that we experience. We are moving closer to the High Holy Days, and with them, the ultimate acknowledgement of our powerlessness in the face of natural disaster. Perhaps the ultimate expression in the Holy Day Liturgy is the Unetaneh Tokef: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, etc. Ultimately the Unetaneh Tokef is a stark acknowledgment of our vulnerability against the forces of nature and the randomness of tragedy. But the Rabbinic tradition also reminds us of the final verse of this devastating litany, which, according to tradition, is supposed to be recited in a louder tone – even shouted – as if to rise above that which is out of our hands: But repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree! We cannot control the random cruelty of nature. What we can control is the attributes of human kindness and empathy; our ability to act to help other people, and allow them to help us – in pain and grief, and in trying to rebuild in the wake of tragedy.
In the end, the comfort that these weeks between Tishah B’Av and Rosh Hashanah are meant to give us comes from our own confidence in our ability to rise up out of tragedy; to help others, and accept help from others, so that we can put our lives back together again. During this particular week, this is what we pray for the souls of Amatrice and their compatriots. May God give them strength, and bring them healing, especially now in the immediate aftermath of tragedy.