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How a Hurricane Relief Mission Prepared Me for Chanukah

December 2, 2018 | by Rabbi Akiva Males

The devastation was immense. What could we really do to help?

I recently joined Memphis' Cooper Yeshiva High School for Boys (CYHSB) for a hands-on Chessed (kindness) mission that none of us will soon forget. Less than a month before, Hurricane Michael had wreaked havoc when it tore through Decatur County, Georgia (see HERE for an eye-opening short news report). Our school eagerly partnered with Nechama (a Jewish natural disaster relief organization) and assisted homeowners in Bainbridge, GA who were still reeling from the hurricane.

We were shocked by the devastation. Tall pine trees had been snapped in half by the more than 100 mile per hour winds that roared through the area. Bright blue tarps still covered many of the wind-battered roofs of the homes we passed. Long irrigation systems were upended in many of the farm fields we drove by. At one point, I stopped our van to take in the sight of a metal shed which was now perched high up in a tree.

Our students split up into two groups to help at two different homes. The group I worked with assisted at a property that had been badly damaged by toppled trees. The family's car had been smashed – downed trees rested atop their home and garage as well. Since so many fallen trees blocked the driveway, unfortunately, no crews had been able to begin repair work on the house.

CYHSB students help clear debris from a hurricane damaged property in Bainbridge, GA

As professional teams from Nechama and AmeriCorps used their chainsaws to cut through the fallen trees, the students and I spent the entire day hauling logs, branches, and debris down the long driveway to the curb for eventual pickup. Was everything back to normal by the time we left that property? Not even close. Nonetheless, we soothed our sore muscles knowing we had played a significant role in the effort to make that family's home whole again.

During the long drive back to Memphis that Thursday night, I thought of Rabbi Tarfon's famous teaching (Pirkei Avos 2:16): “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” No, we didn't complete the task in Bainbridge, GA. However, we certainly played a great role in moving that task towards completion – and for that, we all felt satisfied.

There is a lesson in the miraculous Chanukah victory of the Chashmona'im (Hasmoneans) over the mighty Syrian-Greeks that goes beyond Rabbi Tarfon's teaching. Rabbi Tarfon taught us the importance of getting engaged in a worthy project. Knowing at the outset that we won't be able to finish the task at hand should never discourage us from accomplishing whatever we're able to do.

Rabbi Akiva Males (3rd from left) and his team after a full day of work

The Chashmona'im, however, taught us to never belittle the portion of the project we think we'll be able to complete – no matter how small and insignificant that may seem. After all, that minuscule band of Kohanim (Temple priests) were extremely limited in their ability to fight against the mighty armies of the Syrian-Greeks. No one would have thought they had the ability to succeed. Nonetheless, once they put in their effort, God miraculously enabled them to achieve their goal of liberating Israel from its oppressors.

May the lights of Chanukah inspire us to begin the grandest of projects – no matter how daunting they seem. And like the Chashmona'im, may God enable us to achieve all that we set out to accomplish.

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