"Why do you sleep? Get up! Call out to your G‑d!"—Jonah 1:6.
As I write these lines, New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast are in the path of yet another monster hurricane.
I believe that the only place the Scriptures discusses a raging sea storm is in the book of Jonah, where Jonah, reluctant to carry out a mission G‑d assigned to him, flees on a boat to Tarshish. G‑d responds with a mighty storm that threatens to capsize the vessel. While the raging winds howl about, Jonah descends to the bowls of the ship, lies down and falls asleep.
The ship's captain descends to Jonah's quarters and bellows, "Why do you sleep? Get up! Call out to your G‑d! Maybe He will have mercy on us..."
Jonah admits that his actions caused the storm, "For I know that it is on my account that this mighty storm is upon you," and he suggests that he be cast into the sea. The crew follows his suggestion and the storm subsides. Jonah eventually proceeds to the city of Nineveh where he successfully completes his divine mission.
The story of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. Though the obvious reason for reading the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur is its theme of repentance and forgiveness (see Why do we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?), allow me to suggest another explanation:
All too often while storms – whether personal or communal – rage about us, we are blissfully asleep and unaffected. We feel that circumstances are beyond our control, so why bother getting worked up?
On the holiest day of the year the Captain comes banging on the door: "Now is not the time to sleep! You have no right to remain indifferent when a storm is raging about. You can and must do something about it. Call out to your G‑d!"
This is true regarding the metaphoric storms of life, and certainly regarding the hurricane that is bearing down on our brothers and sisters in the Gulf Coast. It makes no difference whether me or you are in Gustav's trajectory. Every one of us must realize that we cannot remain impervious when a storm is swirling. Our actions and prayers can and will have an impact. Let us all increase in charity, say some extra Psalms and beseech G‑d to avert the decree.
"Maybe He will have mercy on us."