I had been out of town for a few days. When I returned to the ISJL office in Jackson, I was greeted by a co-worker who jokingly said, “Oh, you returned just in time for Itzik (an endearing nickname often used in reference to someone with the name Isaac)!”
Now that I, along with many others in the Deep South, have been visited by Hurricane Isaac, I thought I’d look at the name of this devastating storm.
The story of the birth of Isaac, which is also seasonally appropriate thanks to its Rosh Hashanah connection, is detailed in Genesis. The root of the word Isaac means laughter. Sara, Isaac’s mother, named her son Isaac and explained “God has given me laughter. All who hear will laugh with me.” Sara predicted that when anyone heard about her giving birth at the age of 90, the response would be laughter.
A child’s name inspired by laughter is one thing. A hurricane, though, is no laughing matter. But the laughter that Sara anticipated was associated with wonder. Hurricanes truly provoke wonder.
The Biblical Isaac, however, winds up representing more than laughter and wonder. Isaac represents a test of faith, in the story of the Akedah, or “binding of Isaac,” the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God. Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher, wrote “Fear and Trembling,” which focuses on this story. As he presents various approaches to God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice his son, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between resignation and faith. A resigned Abraham would acknowledge that killing his son is unethical. However, he prepares to sacrifice his son, because God’s command supersedes ethical obligations. That demonstrates faith, Kierkegaard argues: trusting God to avoid committing an unethical act. A faithful Abraham is confident that the telos (end purpose/final goal) of God’s command is ethical. He has faith in God’s ethics, and is confident that the outcome will be ethical. With that faith, he prepares to kill his son.
For centuries, the story of the Akedah has served as the primary illustration of faith in God. However, it can also serve as a basis upon which we can explore our faith in humanity. Kierkegaard’s analysis of the story of Isaac forces us to consider the end goal of the Akedah. A similar analysis can apply to service. There are times when we engage in service because we feel resigned to an obligation namely, to do good in our world. Sometimes, the end goal of our service, however, is not met. Service can have unintended consequences. We may provide a food pantry with loads of canned foods, only to find out that they don’t have a can opener.
A food pantry without a can opener is a simplified but not far-flung example of service that fails to meet the end goal. If we do not first assess needs, our end goal is less likely to be met. “Feeding the hungry” is a noble goal – but if we give someone a can of food without any way to access the food, he or she will remain hungry. Service that is motivated by resignation to a sense of obligation is most likely to come short of our final goals.
However, there is a second approach to service that shares the characteristics of faith. This approach is built upon a relationship of trust. In that relationship, Abraham trusts God to lead him to the end goal of an ethical outcome. Similarly, we can approach service with an end goal that is front and center to our work. We can also build relationships with the people we seek to assist so that together we can learn how to best go about actualizing that goal. With this approach, the assumption is that the people who we seek to assist are experts in how we can reach the desired outcome. We need help to provide help. At a minimum, we ought to ask for input, but there are times when it may not be a bad idea to follow the people we seek to help and who have the deepest understsanding of their needs and have spent hours of their time contemplating and working toward the end goals.
Itzik the storm was an unwelcome guest, however, his impact provides an opportunity to reflect on the relationships we have with others, particularly individuals who are experiencing hard times. Hurricane Isaac destroyed homes, flooded cities, threw peoples’ lives into chaos, and has created an opportunity for us to step in and offer comfort and assistance. In addressing this disaster and disasters of all kind associated with the human experience, let’s reflect on our end goals and the relationships we seek to honor and respect.
How have you been helping people impacted by Hurricane Isaac? Feel free to check out the work of Nechama-Jewish Response to Disaster.