Yesterday, a book that I had ordered arrived in the mail and I couldn’t wait to start reading it. The book is called Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania written by author Erik Larson. This will be the 5th book by Larson that I have read and I have enjoyed each of them tremendously. I love the genre that he writes in as he makes history come alive by highlighting personal vignettes and making the characters seem so real. His last book, In the Garden of the Beasts, was a fascinating account of life in pre-war Germany and how the first years of Adolf Hitler’s power were perceived differently by different people and I would recommend it and his other book’s highly.
My interest in Larson as an author stems from his first book which I consider to be one of my favorite books that I have ever read. It is entitled Isaac’s Storm and tells the story of the devastating hurricane that hit Galveston Texas in 1900. But, it is really the story of Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist in Galveston.
The story revolves around Cline’s absolute conviction that the storm would not be as bad as some feared and his steadfast refusal to order evacuations of the city even as the storm worsened.
I spoke about the book at Kol Nidre in 2001 and have reprinted the sermon below. It is one of my favorite sermons and I hope that you will find it meaningful. I also hope that it conveys the respect I have for Erik Larson and his books as well.
I am not so provincial to think that everyone in this room lived in Boston during the 1960’s but I will ask those of you who didn’t to bear with me while I speak to those who did.
Every morning when I was a kid, we would eat breakfast while watching a show called: “Daily Almanac” on Channel 4 at quarter of 7. There was Jack Chase who ended the news cast by saying: “Make it a good day”. There was Guy Paris who gave the market report from the farmer’s market and talked about vegetables I had never heard of. There was Chris Nahattas, a guy who sold something called the Saladmaster machine and talked a mile a minute and sometimes banged two pots together to show how strong the pots he sold were.
And then, there was my favorite, my hero, Don Kent. Don Kent wasn’t the weatherman, he was the meteorologist. He didn’t just give the weather forecast, he taught about radiational cooling and backdoor cold fronts and the way that the wind should shift to the northwest when the snowstorm which had turned to rain passed by us and how that might lead to a couple of inches of icy snow which might just be enough to make it a traffic problem for the morning rush hour (and, of course, for school to be cancelled). He was great and he inspired my interest in meteorology.
I’m not a scientist. I have no vast reservoir of knowledge of physics or chemistry or whatever else goes into weather forecasting. I’m just fascinated by the whole enterprise.
It is that fascination that drew my attention to a book that I spotted in an airport bookstore earlier this year. The book, entitled Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, is an account of the Great Hurricane of 1900 which turned Galveston, Texas into a ghost town by killing over 6,000 people. The storm is still considered the greatest natural disaster in American history.
It wasn’t the most appropriate and comforting reading for plane trips, but it was the most absorbing and captivating book that I read this year. It is truly a fascinating account of a tragedy and brought to mind two subjects which are appropriate to consider on this evening of Yom Kippur. One has to do with the world we live in and one has to do with the kind of people we are.
Let me deal first with the easier of the two, the one about the world we live in.
Early in the book, Larsen address the question of what makes a monster hurricane like this occur. If we dispense, as I certainly would, with any idea of Divine purpose or intent, he ponders what makes this mass of clouds and droplets of rain turn into a killer.
He cites a book called Perils of a Restless Planet by Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. who had described the complex process of the development of a storm and then theorized that any small incident, even the sudden burst of heat from a warship staging a gunnery drill in the area of the storm’s formation could cause the pot to boil over. “Add a little glitch, a metaphorical butterfly, to a complex process and sometimes you get an outcome no rational person would ever have expected.”
As Larsen writes about the days before the storm hit: “Galveston spun through space at nine hundred miles an hour. The trade winds blew. Great masses of air shifted without a sound. Somewhere, a butterfly opened its wings.”
Such is the world we live in. A world in which something so insignificant in the scale of things can change our entire world and upset everything for which we had hoped and dreamed, planned and labored. The infinitesimally small virus, the mutation in a single gene, the red light we hit or don’t hit, being in a particular place at a particular time. Our world is full of metaphorical butterflies which, at random, create chaos out of order.
I can’t explain why God created the world in this way. I refuse to accept that every specific act is ordained from on high. All I can do, all any of us can do, is to prepare ourselves as best we can to respond when the butterfly opens its wings.
We must structure our lives with the kind of support that can be summoned to face the sudden crisis: a strong family, a network of friends, a supportive community, faith to overcome despair, confidence in ourselves to meet the hardships which life presents. These are the things we must work for in our own lives.
This thought is, according to some commentaries, the p’shat, the intended meaning of the most difficult passage in the machzor. In the prayer u’n’taneh tokef, we read: “u’tshuva, u’tifeela u’tzidakah ma’avirim et roa hag’zayra”. Our machzor translates these words as: teshuva, repentance, tefilla, prayer, tzedakah, righteous deeds avert the evil decree. But, some note that the Hebrew words are not properly translated as “evil decree” but as “the evil nature of the decree”. Thus, say these commentaries, the prayer does not mean to indicate that doing teshuva, praying and doing righteous deeds will prevent negative things from happening to us but will take some of the sting out of the experience by giving us something to fall back on when the experience does take place. A strong sense of self-respect, a relationship with God and a network formed when we showed concern for others will place us in the position to respond more constructively to the negative events which will, no doubt, happen to us.
We can hope and we can pray that we will never be touched by such disorder. But, at some point, in some way, to some degree, we will each be affected by the slight glitches in the natural world that turn lives into chaos. May we do what we need to do before the glitch occurs to better live our lives through the turmoil which will inevitably result.
That was the easier of the two subjects raised in the book. The other concerns us as human beings.
The name of the book is Isaac’s storm and the Isaac in question is Isaac Cline the director of the Weather Station in Galveston during the time of the storm.
Larson’s book is really not about the disaster as much as it is about Isaac Cline, one of the most noted and able weather forecasters in the country at the time. As Larson describes him: “[Cline] was a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in a rheumatoid knee. Isaac personally had encountered and explained some of the strangest atmospheric phenomena a weatherman could ever hope to experience, but also had read the works of the most celebrated meteorologists and physical geographers of the nineteenth century and he believed deeply that he understood it all.”
The popular myth from the Galveston hurricane is that Cline was a hero who tried to personally reach everyone he could in the city with the news of the impending tragedy. According to this story, Isaac Cline was the Noah the Rabbis of the Talmud created, the one who took so many steps to convince others to repent and who attempted to convince God not to bring the flood.
But, Isaac’s Storm casts doubt on that story by showing clearly that Cline refused to believe that a storm of this magnitude could exist. He disregarded the signs he saw and he dismissed the gnawing sense of doubt growing within him. He debated those, including his own brother, who tried to convince him that he had been wrong while there was still time. He was so confident that he could not have been wrong, that there could be no glitches, that storms had to do what they had always been known to do, that he failed to accept and believe the signs of the impending doom properly.
And, as he steadfastly told his family and friends and those who depended on his wisdom to stay put, as he continued to hold by his story, the death toll mounted and the tragedy worsened and the world turned upside down.
Teshuva, repentance, can mean many different things. It certainly can refer to looking back on our lives and returning to what we know to be the right path. But Teshuva can also be seen in a different way. Teshuva is the power that we have to recognize, even when going down a path, that that path is wrong. It is the power that weas human beings have to act proactively, to cut through arrogance, pride, fear, vengeance, whatever negative characteristic is propelling us, and stop the damage before it turns our world and the world of others upside down.
I don’t know how many lives might have been saved in the case of the Galveston hurricane. But, I do know how many times each of us, every one of us, has watched ourselves make decisions, follow patterns, go down paths that damage our lives and the lives of others. We ignore the warning signs, push away those feelings of doubt and we allow momentum to carry us onwards, resting on our own abilities to understand everything that needs to be understood and ignoring the new realities which surround us.
We need to have the courage and the inner strength to admit that there are times when the quality of our lives and the lives of others are endangered by paths we follow. We need to be able to put on the brakes, look in the mirror and change our lives. We need to admit as Isaac Cline never did, that we are wrong and that we are allowing our own arrogance to stand in the way of what we know is truly right.
The Talmud teaches: yehay adam rach kikaneh v’al yehay kashe kierez: a person must be supple as a reed, not hard like a cedar. We must be supple as a reed, willing to change direction, to turn inward, to confront the reality of life while ther eis still time to save ourselves and others.
It is not easy. Sometimes we need help. We must seek out that help. And, we must use the High Holy Days as the time to awaken us to the paths we are on.
So, I leave you with these two messages from this book. First, remember that the world is complex and subject to unpredictable events which we must prepare for as best we can. And secondly, we must avoid the trap of trusting in ourselves to the point that we can’t see clearly the evidence around us that we are going down a path that endangers our well-being. Those two messages are the essence of the Days of Awe and we must learn them.
Repentance Prayer and righteous deeds can take the sting out of this world. Let us hope that we can prove that to be true as we face difficult days ahead in the world. Let us build around us a system which can sustain us and let us always be sure to take note of the road on which we are traveling.