This article was published in the Jewish Press, July 2nd 2010 edition.
The ongoing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has been declared the worst oil spill in American history. It occurred when an offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20, killing eleven crew members and causing an oil pipe, 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface, to rupture. BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, is the fourth largest company, of any type, in the world. Shockingly, BP's efforts, backed by America, have not stopped the flow.
Although God's ways are beyond us and each individual bears responsibility for his actions, God uses life events to teach us what we need to learn. Let us not add to this tragedy by remaining unchanged by it.
Two possible lessons may be derived from this disaster. The first is that we can't do anything without God's help. As I watched images of the oil gushing out of the pipe and read reports of the resultant economic hardship and environmental damage, I felt a sense of helplessness. Even though we believe in God, there is still some part of us that usually thinks we can manage on our own. When our experience belies that, we feel helpless.
The truth is that with God's help we are never helpless; without it, we are always as helpless as a crying infant. Unlike an infant who realizes his powerlessness and cries out for help, many of us deny our total dependence on God. We sometimes think, especially with all the breakthroughs in medicine and engineering, that we can go it alone. It's humbling to discover that while we can split the nucleus of an atom, without God's backing we can't even fix a broken pipe.
Everyone relies on something to feel secure. Before 9/11, we relied on our military might. Before the economic downturn, we relied on our financial institutions. Before this oil spill, we relied on our sophisticated technologies. Now there is nothing material left to rely on; all pretenses have been stripped away; all the puppets are gone. The only one left is the Puppeteer Himself.
We are now at a pivotal crossroad. Will we try to fashion new puppets in our search for security? Or will we find that security in God's guidance and assistance?
God is our Father in Heaven, and just like a parent wants to hear from children regularly and not only sporadically, God wants to hear from us every day. He does not want to be the option of last resort. He is the only option, as nothing can help us independent of His will. As King David says in Psalms (127:1), "If God will not build the house, in vain have its builders labored on it."
The oil emanating from the bowels of the earth, traveling many miles to distant shores, is perhaps God's dispatch to us, saying, "You need Me and I want to be needed by you."
The second possible lesson is the importance of boundaries and how they relate to theft. What is unusual about this environmental disaster is that the polluting agent - the oil - is natural; one natural element contaminating another. The oil was a precious resource when it was kept separate; it only became a menace once its barrier was breached inappropriately. Although the investigation is ongoing, the chief mechanic on the rig testified that shortcuts had been insisted on from the top, despite workers' concerns.
Everything God creates has innate holiness and needs to be treated with respect and care. Things only become evil when they are misused. The Torah, God's instruction manual for life, teaches us how to mine the holiness in everything without overstepping our bounds and causing a breach. Sin is in essence a breach - a breach of the trust God has in us, His creations, to follow His will, and a breach in the guidelines God set as to how things He created may be used.
Our Sages say it was the sin of thievery that caused God to flood the world during the time of Noah. When people breached the separation between what was theirs and what was not, God acted in kind. He unleashed His wellsprings, which were ensconced deep in the earth and unknown to humanity, and that water then joined with their oceans and rivers. The combined waters, together with the rain, flooded the world.
There are eerie similarities between the flood and the oil spill. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the flood started during the month of Iyar - the same month this oil spill began. Both the flood and the oil spill were triggered by something unleashed from deep below the surface. And, considering the rampant fraud and theft plaguing our society, the reason given by our tradition for the flood is cause for reflection.
As mentioned above, it is very possible that the use of illegitimate means to hasten the oil extraction led to the broken pipe. Using illegitimate methods to gain something is a form of theft. The image of oil washing up on our shores is also symbolic of theft - something dark and foreboding encroaching upon an area where it does not belong.
Though we strive to be honest and ethical, most of us could stand at least some improvement in those areas. We can utilize the anger and frustration we feel over the oil spill as motivation to focus on these areas.
To get started we can ask ourselves, (1) "Am I doing anything that, though I can rationalize why it's OK, is against the law?" and (2) "What is a gap in my life in this area and what can I do to plug the hole?"
After we learn the first lesson - reliance on God and seeking His help - the second lesson - respecting boundaries - follows naturally. When our chief priority is having God's guidance and assistance in our lives, we will never want something He has forbidden. All we will ever want is what God, out of His deep love, wants to give us.