Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dodging Disaster

הודו ליהוה כי טוב, כי לעולם חסדו 
Give thanks to HaShem for He is good, for His kindness endures forever!

Oftentimes we are presented with terrible difficulties in life while occasionally we receive HaShem’s abundant mercies. When the latter occurs, especially in a miraculous manner, it can be overwhelming as one tries to comprehend the enormity of the gift. Saying that one would be thankful is an understatement as there are no words to adequately express the profound appreciation one feels. Our Rabbis teach the importance of publicizing a miracle as we see particularly from Chanukah when we are commanded to place our Chanukah Menorah in public view. Purim is another example of a spectacular event we expose openly. In light of this, I would like to relate one such personal occurrence.

Our son, Uri, and his friend, Noam, went on a post-army trip to work in Australia for a few months with a bit of touring planned for the route home ~ New Zealand, Hong Kong and Thailand. After being in Australia for 3 months, Noam left for New Zealand while Uri and a new friend, Itzik, planned to meet Noam there a few weeks later.

It was Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011, יח` אדר א. I don’t usually sleep late in the morning, but this particular day I wasn’t yet awake at 8 something when our oldest daughter called. I was able to say Modeh Ani while my husband brought me the phone which quickly jolted me out of my drowsiness. If the phone could vibrate emotions, it would be shaking with distress. The urgency in my daughter’s voice was palpable as she began speaking. She had just been in touch with Uri who was heading to New Zealand during the night, our time. After this short disclaimer, she asked if I had heard the news. There had been a major earthquake in New Zealand but Baruch HaShem, Uri was fine. As with every grave incident which is too close for comfort, I thought to myself, what were the chances of them being exactly where the earthquake struck anyway, so why all the anxiety? Little did I know that our daughter had also spoken to Uri the previous day during which he informed her of his plans; Uri and Itzik were to meet Noam in Chrixxchurch, the precise location of massive destruction. The death toll was already at 65 with more expected. (Sadly, the final tally of confirmed dead eventually rose to 182). All morning we were anxiously waiting to hear about Noam, praying for his safety, since he hadn’t contacted his family yet, probably due to problems with communications in general. B”H he contacted them a couple of hours later.

The boys were all safe and sound, thank G-d, so we could breathe a sigh of relief. Why then did I spend the whole morning crying?  I was not sobbing from sorrow, though my heart went out to the victims and their families. On the contrary; my emotions were enormously intense as I was engulfed with a deep sense of gratitude, the depth of which I had never experienced before. On the surface it appeared to be a personally uneventful day, give or take a couple hours of uneasiness. The facts tell a different story however, via a succession of events which could only have been orchestrated by G-d Himself.

Uri and Itzik were scheduled to fly to New Zealand but their flight was significantly delayed for unknown reasons. They were finally aboard the plane headed for New Zealand, due to land shortly, when the earthquake occurred resulting in the airport closure. Despite the proximity to their destination, the plane was forced to turn around mid-air. They refueled in Tasmania and flew back to Australia.

When Noam’s sister-in-law called to tell us the good news that Noam was finally in touch with his family, the story he related to her brought me to tears. Noam, Uri and Itzik were supposed to meet in a specific building in the city center of Chrixxchurch. Noam was on a bus going to the meet them but the bus passed the building so Noam asked the bus driver to please let him out. The driver refused to stop because it wasn’t his designated stop. When Noam kept asking, the driver sympathized with Noam’s plight and went as far as to call his supervisor to ask if he could make an exception for this young tourist. He was told no. Noam finally got off the bus far from the city center when the earth suddenly shook. Traumatized from the quake, Noam began making his way back to the center of town when he saw a news report showing the exact building where the three were supposed to meet - totally collapsed! Horrified, not knowing the flight had been delayed, thinking his friends were already there, he was screaming that he had to get through to find them, but the authorities wouldn't let him pass. Needless to say, he was in a state of shock. He didn’t find out Uri and Itzik were ok until he spoke to his Mom.


Had they met as planned, they probably would have all been in that building when it went down. Thank G-d for His Great Mercy, Who spared them through so many miracles. 

When I pondered the significance of all that transpired, it also occurred to me that if HaShem can do anything, and in His infinite compassion He chose to save our boys from this calamity, He could have simply prevented the building from falling on them, saving them from injury even in the midst of all the destruction. Instead of several individual miracles, one collective miracle would have done the same job, so why all the extra ‘work’?  It didn’t take much deliberation to conclude that like anything else G-d does for our benefit, it is not merely the end result which is His gift to us, but also the hidden messages within it. Yes, their survival was the ultimate reward, but HaShem was personally guiding the boys with His staff of life. These exclusive miracles were uniquely designed for each of the boys to grab hold of and to learn from, tailor made to lead them on their own path. With the snowball effect kicking in, it was also a lesson for each one of us who loves and cares about them, bringing us to introspection of our own. The whole episode strengthened my emuna and reconfirmed my confidence in HaShem’s active presence in our lives. To know that G-d is constantly with us can be difficult to internalize, but when one has the privilege of seeing His unbelievable wonders, it adds more credence to our beliefs. Recognizing that He was protecting my beloved son so many miles away, I was able to relax in the comfort of His loving arms, the serenity of which was consoling beyond compare. As the words of thanks poured from my lips to my Heavenly Father, I also understood that this miracle must be shared with others for encouragement and inspiration.

The following day, Uri and Itzik boarded the first available flight to New Zealand to meet their friend, Noam.  Since there were no youth hostels or hotels open in Chrixxchurch after the quake and the Chabad House was severely damaged, they decided to head south to do some sightseeing. I had originally been against Uri’s trip but when I saw the beautiful pictures he took, I realized that not everything is black and white. While in essence, a carefree, aimless vacation appears to be a waste of precious time, it allowed him to witness many of G-d’s creations first hand. Observing the beauty of such magnificent landscape and wildlife was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I was genuinely happy that he had the opportunity to partake of it (all within the boundaries of Halacha [Jewish Law], of course). 

Photo Credit - col@col.org.il
Noam had previously been in touch with the Chabad Rabbi, so they contacted him when they returned to Chrixxchurch a week later. The Rabbi wanted to go into the city center to collect some seforim (holy books) and the Sefer Torahs (Torah Scrolls) which were buried in the ruins, so Noam volunteered to go with him. Once again, they weren’t allowed to enter the area but were finally given permission with a police escort. Although Noam was ready and willing to go in alone to retrieve the holy items, considering the danger involved, he was forbidden. With a little coaxing, the police agreed to do it themselves. Baruch HaShem, two Torahs were brought out from the darkness of destruction. This was a bittersweet celebration as it soon became apparent that three young Israeli backpackers lost their lives in the earthquake (Baruch Dayan HaEmet – G-d is the True Judge).

It is astounding to replay the succession of happenings which shadowed Uri’s trail. Whither he went, devastation followed as he seemed to dodge one disaster after another:

January – While in Australia, the country was faced with unprecedented storms and flooding.  People lost their homes and some lost their lives. Uri was in Melbourne most of the time, while the flooding occurred mainly on the other coast.

February – The New Zealand earthquake as stated above.


March 6th – Still in New Zealand they were in a town called Kaikoura.  By 4 p.m. they left to head inland to Queenstown.  At 4:43 p.m. a quake hit the area 20-kilometres east of Kaikoura. There were no reports of damage, but rocks fell onto State Highway One about 17 km north of Kaikoura.


March 11th, a huge 9 magnitude earthquake struck Japan with a powerful tsunami resulting in thousands of deaths and bringing the nuclear power plants to the brink of total meltdown. Thank G-d he had no plans to visit Japan.


Thursday, March 24th - Uri was in the air on his way from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand when an earthquake shook Myanmar (Burma), just north of Thailand and was felt in Bangkok as well. The death toll rose to 74 people with at least 111 injured.

Sunday, March 27th – After spending Shabbat at a Chabad House in Bangkok, Uri and some new Israeli friends took a bus to Phuket in the south of Thailand. When they arrived, they were unable to enjoy any sightseeing as a bad rainstorm had erupted. At a time of year when extreme heat was the rule, unheard of cold temperatures permeated the area. This added salt to the wounds of the terrible flooding and mudslides which claimed the lives of at least 53 people and stranded thousands of tourists in southern Thailand. Trains to the region were cancelled and three airports shut down. The Thai navy evacuated about 1,200 people from Koh Samui and Koh Tao, a remote island popular with backpackers. In the center of all this torrential weather and resulting damage, in the idyllic town of Phuket, Uri, his friends and Beit Chabad remained unscathed, B”H, under HaShem’s Protective Wing.
Sunday, April 3rd - The day Uri left Phuket for Bangkok, another earthquake hit the region, this time south of Thailand in Indonesia near Chrixxmas Island with a tsunami warning issued.
These miracles cannot just be swept under the rug as natural phenomena. As stated before, we each have an obligation to find the sublime meaning in all incidents affecting our lives. The righteous Baal Shem Tov zt’l once said, “Every single thing that a person sees or hears is an instruction to him in his conduct in the service of G-d”. Beyond that, one can also see a definite trend in the movement of the world as a whole and the messages HaShem is trying to transmit to humanity… if we will only open our eyes and ears. We each have our role to play in the grand scheme of things. I can only pass on what I believe to be inspiring; what you do with that knowledge is up to you. What I do know is that the Master of the Universe does nothing without a reason and without His protection we are but dust beneath the rubble.
Deuteronomy 11:26 states “See, I give you today a blessing and a curse". Life’s journey is a constant battle between good and evil, between our yetzer tov and our yetzer hara. If we use our experiences and awareness wisely to fulfill G-d’s Will, through complete and sincere emuna, we will have the power to turn all the bad of the world into a state of Divine perfection. When this challenge is finally met, our genuine, earnest thoughts and actions will enable Moshiach to finally proclaim his long-awaited arrival.
May we all merit to behold a world overflowing with continuous Wonders and Miracles, soon in the coming days, Amen.
(this article first appeared on Breslev.co.il)