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Great Balls of Ice

August 5, 2009 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

One small storm for man, one giant message for mankind.

This was the year the calendar lied.

The first three weeks of June had been the coldest and wettest in New York City memory, and most of us were getting pretty fed up. The daily weather forecast sounded like it had been pre-recorded and didn't require any editing or variation.

"Mixed clouds and sunshine today, showers possible, overcast, with intermittent thunderstorms, and an unsettled weather pattern. More of the same tomorrow, and the next day, and the next..."

You get the idea. Malibu Beach it wasn't. But the calendar said June 26th, so off we went to our summer bungalow in the Catskill Mountains. We have spent weekends of the last 30 summers in the placid confines of tranquil Monticello and our anticipation simply overruled the seeming certainty of frosty nights, muddy ball fields, and unemployed tubes of Coppertone.

It was just past noon on that humid Friday when my teeming Sienna ambled down Varnell Road, up the tapered knoll, and over the speed bumps into Castle Hill Cottages. I disembarked from the van, stepped on some moist grass, and thought I saw a few rays glinting through some high clouds. It had been quite some time since I had last witnessed true sunshine so I couldn't say for sure that I saw what I thought I saw. But I wasn't being fooled. Twenty-two consecutive days of rain will do that to a guy.

My wife, my daughter, and I spent the next 90 minutes doing the annual unloading and unfolding, and watched the swirling clouds do their daily dance. It wasn't more than a few minutes later that the heavens transformed into a menacing canopy of the deepest shade of gray imaginable.

"Here we go again," I muttered. "Time for our daily dose."

The scene quickly transformed from the torrential to the providential.

The lightening struck and the thunder clapped, and in seconds the powerful downpour formed little lakes in every cranny where pavement was absent.

But then the scene quickly transformed from the torrential to the providential. Our ears heard it before our eyes considered it.


"What's making all that noise?"

And then we saw it: balls of hail, raining down from the sky at breakneck speed and intensity. Small golf balls -- thousands, no tens of thousands -- of spheres of ice came crashing down. (Ice? The thermometer outside read 77 degrees Fahrenheit.)

I watched my Toyota being pelted with a vengeance and was sure that my windshield was seconds away from shattering. My wife and I just gaped with awe, and our daughter was shaking with fear. The lights flickered and went dark. The power went out.

"What's going on?" Chanala pleaded as she ran to me for protection, even though we all stood under a sturdy roof. She buried her face in my shoulder and cried tears of bewilderment.

The whole bizarre episode was over in less than three minutes, but somehow we knew the impact would not soon be forgotten. We gazed out at the guilty skies and watched as the clouds broke and the sun tried to appear. All over the ground were thousands of surviving ice balls. Defying the tropic temperature, they lay still, almost innocent, oblivious to their own presence and contradiction.

Later that night, the Castle Hill residents gathered at the synagogue to usher in the Shabbat. After the services, the buzz centered on the now-famous summer ice storm. No one recalled anything like it before. Some of us sought the "deeper meaning" to this uncommon event, but we walked home without answers.

The next morning we read the weekly portion from the Torah. It was the story of Korach -- that infamous rabble-rouser who brought divisiveness and friction to the newly formed Jewish People. Korach challenged Moses' leadership and led a mutiny in the ranks that divided the populace.

I stood in the synagogue and listened to the Torah reader, and suddenly it hit me. Ice! The Hebrew word for ice is kerach'! The exact same letters as the week's Torah reading! The "coincidence" was too obvious to be ignored. Ice -- kerach -- falling in the summer when we read about Korach. Perhaps God was somehow reminding us of the dangers of disunity and dissension, the forces of Korach.

Unity is the Jewish People's secret weapon.

In fact, the history of the Jewish People is testimony to this phenomenon. Unity was actually the secret weapon of the Israeli armies that fought so many wars during the early formative years of its existence.

The Talmud (Yerushalmi Pe'ah, Chapter I) reminds us that even if the prevailing Kings of the Jews, such as Achav and others, brought idolatry and blasphemy to the People and were inherently evil, they nevertheless benefited from uncanny Heavenly assistance and the won the wars they fought.

The only reason for this special dispensation was that there was an unusual spirit of togetherness among the masses. Even the kingdom 0f David, perhaps the greatest monarchy of all, did not merit this level of support from Above because so much discord permeated the citizenry during his reign.

God seems to place a special premium on His children being of one voice and His family waving one banner. No matter how many individuals may be living the good life, He will not tolerate internal strife and dissonance. It's what ultimately led the destruction of the Second Temple and may still, 2000 years later, be the greatest impediment to its rebuilding.

We need to take this problem seriously. We need to begin thinking as a People, not as individuals. We need to feel support for each other, show support for each other, and put aside petty differences and controversies. If we are serious about building this new Temple, we cannot afford to bark and gripe about the trivial differences among us.

Let's stop the bickering and put aside the superficial conflicts that masquerade as principles.

Three thousand years ago we won wars by sticking together. Today we face wars all the time. Often times it feels like it is us against the world -- because it is. Just one visit to the UN will confirm that as fact. But those wars will not be won by expert diplomacy or by strategic genius alone. We must employ our secret weapon -- the one that has a proven track record, the one that so often seems so out of reach and so unattainable.

Each person must start in his own backyard, in his own neighborhood -- perhaps even within in his own family. Let's stop the bickering and put aside the superficial conflicts that masquerade as principles. See the big picture and relinquish your stronghold on piddling opinions and sentiments.

Distribute compliments openly to all family members in the presence of all family members. Become an example of being easy to forgive. Create projects for good will that the whole family can participate in. Create projects that the whole neighborhood can participate in. Plan family outings. Eat supper together. Have discussions about ways you can increase unity.

The forces of dissension are always trying to crash through our atmosphere, pelt our roofs and windshields, and threaten our security. It may look like summer outside, but ice balls are coming. And the power of unity can shield us.

All we need to do is stick together. It's our secret and most powerful weapon.

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