A Jewish Perspective on the Volcano, the iPad and Us!

April 25, 2010

Unless you’ve had your head stuck under a rock, you are aware of the Iceland volcano that began erupting on March 20th 2010, and for all intensive purposes shut down Europe (Flickr Pictures and YouTube Video here). Indeed, as reported here, President Obama, as well as many other leaders of the world where unable to fly in for the weekend funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynsk, due to the volcanic ash cloud that disrupted European air traffic. Personally, I’m still aware of several bochurim as well as families that remain stuck in various parts of the world, because of the volcanic ash. Despite the fact that this volcano was located in Iceland, it affected the global economy in addition to families and businessman. All in all, the airline industry reported a loss of nearly 2 billion dollars due to the volcanic ash!

Just this past Erev Shabbos, millions of people celebrated Earth Day, in which they remember, appreciate, and respect “Mother Nature.” On the other hand, Chazal instructed us to not have one day to introspect upon the Earth. Rather, Jews are meant to constantly learn from natural disasters or the like and ask, “what is Hashem trying to tell us?” We should think, “what message should we, the Jewish people, perhaps be hearing a bit louder?” And yet, while it’s certainly true that after the earthquake that crippled Haiti, Jews quickly arrived and made a Kiddush Hashem (all you needed to do was follow this Twitter stream to read of the daily chessed performed by the IDF), by and large the Jewish community was not caught and crippled by the earthquake in Haiti.  Hence, for the most part we have carried on with our busy life.  Typically speaking, human beings react only when something happens directly under our nose. If however, something doesn’t come  within “our daled amos” it seems to not really register on our radar, nor does it evoke us to ask, “what might Hashem be trying to tell us?”

To that end, being that the volcano did not take place in an isolated area such as Haiti or China, but rather affected travel even to and from Israel, and has and continues to hamper hundreds of bachurim, Roshei Yeshivas, and Rebbes-the entire spectrum of the heimeshe olam,  Rav Shmuel Brazil, at his Shabbos Dvar Torah, decided to comment on the volcano, and give us all a bit of hisorerus from current events. Below are merely some of his insights as I recall them, mixed in with additional points and comments of my own.

First and foremost, I’d be remiss to point out that in my conversation with Rav Brazil prior to the beginning of Mincha, he noted, that in all of his lifetime, he can’t remember a time in which there has been soo many natural disasters occurring one after another (Indeed, right after Shabbos, I read of the latest Tornado here in which to date, 10 people have tragically perished). It seems apparent that Hashem must be trying to awaken the world, and more particularly Klal Yisrael, to something…

Rav Brazil began with a few introductory remarks, and then quoted a small Kuntres authored by Rav Yaakov Emden titled, Migal Oz. In this booklet there is a chapter called: Gehonnim. In this chapter Rabbi Emden quotes the Gemorah in Eiruvin 19a,  that relates to us that there are 3 physical openings to Gehonnim in this world. He proceeds by explaining that one of the openings to Gehonnim is, “well known and even recorded in a Sefer called Roshmei HaKadur, that there is a mountain in Iceland that spews ash from Gehonnim!!”

That’s right!

This isn’t any sort of volcano.

This isn’t any sort of natural disaster.

It is a volcano that spews ash from Gehonnim itself. It’s no wonder that a couple of puffs from this volcano had such an impact!

Rav Brazil continued by asking, “Does anyone know the name of the volcano?” Indeed, even newscasters have trouble pronouncing the name. Frankly, I find it easier to say five times Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current leader of Iran, who also seems to spew a stream of lava like vitriol towards the Jews, then to pronounce the name of the volcano called Eyjafjallajokull (thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Dixler you can learn here how to pronounce the name Eyjafjallajokull).

To answer the above question, Rav Brazil took a more esoteric approach. He suggested that due to the speed in which we commute and communicate these days, we live in a reality that it’s becoming common place for people to not properly stop and think about the words we speak and emit into the atmosphere. How many politicians or sports figures do we know of that on a weekly basis claim, “I didn’t say that!” or “you quoted me out of context,” despite the fact that we have them recorded making such statements. Unfortunately, society is headed down a course in which we are not giving our words and commitments much weight or thought.

Hence, in the current state, our dibbur, and certainly that of Klal Yisrael’s, is not so Kadosh. Instead, it’s in a rotten state of kilkul. Unfortunately, there are Yidden of all stripes and colors who speak with such sina (hatred) and not with an ounce of ahavah (love) that we are becoming more jumbled and fractored than unified. Sadly, with each passing day in which we do not refrain from all words of disunity and Lashon Harah, we invariably will come across to the rest of the world as if we are just as jumbled as the name of the volcano!

We need to recognize that our words buzz around like this video of air traffic. We need to remember that there are ramifications to the way in which we speak and communicate. We live in such a quick and technologically advanced world, that sometimes we forget to think before speaking, or pressing click and sending an email with insensitive words, or commenting with sinas chinam to a blog post or the like. Airplanes are arguably the greatest vehicle to allowing an individual to experience just how fast of a world we live in nowadays. A journey that used to take months, is now completed within a couple of hours! And yet, while you certainly need to buckle your safety belt and listen to the instructions of the captain, an airplane can not even take off the ground without the use of technology.

Technology, commented Rav Brazil, is tov (good) and can also be rah (bad). However, if we succumb to the focus of constantly be engulfed in the culture that follows the latest technology trends and fads, and hence begin to stray from no longer being conscious of thinking before we speak, then Hashem can elect to flick his own switch, so to speak, to keep us grounded. There was nothing that anyone could have done to remove the volcanic ash from the sky. Thousands of people the world over just had to wait it out. However, it’s up to us to decide how we would utilize this time. I heard of one person who said, “well if I can’t make it to my business conference, I might as well sit and learn!” And so, he chaperined and learned many more hours of Torah then he intended on beingable to learn during this episode. Conversely, there were other Jews who decided to simply pass the time by reading a USA Today cover to cover. And you know what…to each his own! That said, this volcano did bring globalization and the comforts of air travel, to halt. In so doing, it afforded us the opportunity (it was up to each individual to utilize it) to think and introspect.

We need to remember that words, which although not visible, nonetheless travel throughout the world. Our words travel to the various olamos all the way up to Shomayim. We ned to never forget that our machshavos (thoughts), our masos (actions), but most importantly our dibbur (speech), is what sets us, human beings apart, from any other living being in this world.

We need to remember that it’s really quite simple: If  Klal Yisrael speaks nicely and proper, and by extension act as true Kedoshim, holy people, then we will all make it to a life in Gan Eden. However if we live a life of speaking (and that includes all forms of communication) Lashon Hara, then Rav Brazil reminded us all that there is room for all of us in Gehonnim!

Technology is a wonderful asset. It has advanced communication and made travel efficient, and dare I say seemingly effortless. If however, we loose sight that our goal is to be as it says (in what is now last weeks Parsha) Kedoshim, holy, because Hashem is holy, and instead chase after the next piece of gashmius or technology then we will quickly erode. With that said, perhaps we can finally understand why at the same time as the volcanic ash was distributing air travel, the latest gadget from Apple, the iPad, was mysteriously banned from entering into The Holy Land.

As I’m certain you know by now,  if you flew into Israel, you could not bring an iPad into the country…it was immediately confiscated!  While the Wall Street Journal to TIME Magazine all speculated as to why it was not allowed to enter Israel, no one could get a real straight answer. There were rumors floating around that the reason was for military precautions or due to collusion to not allow the iPad into the country until it was going to be sold in Israel. However, I’d suggest based upon the above thoughts that this, albeit temporary ban, was ultimately not another political or military conspiracy. Rather it was all part and parcel of Hashem’s subtle message to the Jewish people. He was subtly reminding us that we should really worry about how we can strive to have more Kedusha enter our lives. This time period of Sefiras HaOmer, is not supposed to be the time of the iPad. For us, it’s supposed to be the time of the iClimb, as we each work on our various attributes so that we can climb and correct our middos, and by extension, reach the holiday of Shavous as Jews in a perfected state of holiness.

Again, do I think it’s a coincidence that right after finishing the double Parsha of Achrei Mos-Kedoshim, I read that Israel has, just as mysteriously as the ban came, finally decided to lift the ban and allow the iPad (back) into the country?

I think not…

Hashem never intended to withhold gashmius or technology from us altogether.

Do I think that it’s a coincidence that no industry, aside for the airlines was as severely affected by this volcano as that of the import and export fish?

I think not…

After all, we all know that when Yaakov Avinu blessed Yoseph’s two sons and all of their descendants he compared them, and hence the Jewish people, to fish. There are many other sources, ranging from the Midrash Rabbah on down, who also compare the Jewish people to fish. See also here. All in all, if the fish industry which are comparable to the Jewish people were affected by this volcano, I view it as yet another gentle reminder from our Father in Heaven that we should listen and be affected by the subtle yet powerful message emanating from  Eyjafjallajokull.

Finally, Rav Brazil concluded by citing this article. Apparently, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano isn’t necessarily the main problem. It’s Katla, Iceland’s noisier neighbor, that’s the real concern. If lava flowing from Eyjafjallajokull melts the glaciers that hold down the top of Katla, then Katla could blow its top, pumping gigantic amounts of ash into the atmosphere. The potential eruption of Iceland’s volcano Katla could send the world, including the United States, into an extended deep freeze. Lashon Harah is worse than shefichas damim, murder, for it parallels avodah zara, idolatry and immorality as well. Rav Brazil left us all with the following question, “Does one not think that Hashem may be sending us another subtle message hidden in the name of this second volcano? I don’t think that it is a mere coincidence that this second volcano means murder in Aramaic?”

Regardless of whatever “death” this second volcano may allude to, be it economic or what not, we should take the current events and not shrug them off. Instead, we should view them with hisorerus, to help us continue to climb forward towards our cleansing process that we partake in during this time period of Sefiras HaOmer and the acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai, which we celebrate on the upcoming holiday of Shavous.

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