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God Squad: Feeling warm helping others

Normally, I answer questions from readers. This week, I'll answer a question I sent myself. After Sandy struck the Northeast last week, I was lying in bed with a coat on under three blankets in my dark, cold house, and I couldn't feel my toes. My car was almost out of gas, and I'd just eaten cold beans for dinner.

That's when I asked myself, "How am I going to get through this?" This is my answer to me. I hope it helps you survive whatever storms wash over you and yours, especially those that can't be tracked on radar.

The big spiritual lesson I learned from Sandy is simple and difficult. Most deep truths are like that -- simple and difficult: The key to getting out of survival mode is to serve others. The great personal and spiritual danger of living through catastrophe is self-pity. It's normal and natural in abnormal and unnatural times to surrender to self-regarding concerns. We just want to be warm and fed and connected to our electronic umbilical cords, and at times none of that is possible.

When you have children to care for, the burdens pressing you down are even heavier. I felt myself spiraling down into a dark place. Then, my friend Cal Kleinman and his wife, Denise, got to me and offered me a generator-assisted hot shower and a warm place to sleep.

In the Sabbath daylight, they suggested we fill up our cars with food and water and head down to the South Shore of Long Island and just give it all out to the first people we saw who were in need. We had no specific destination in mind and certainly no illusions about the effect our meager donations of water and granola bars would have in light of the daunting task of recovery and reconstruction.

Eventually, we found our way past some National Guard troops into the village of Lindenhurst, where we passed a Roman Catholic church with the eerily appropriate name of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (210 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst). Hundreds of tired, disoriented, hungry and thirsty adults and children were entering the front doors of the church, and hundreds of people like us were coming in the back doors with donations.

The pastor, Father Joseph DeGrocco, greeted me, hugged me and told me in a shaken voice that out of 6,000 parishioners, he didn't know of a single family that hadn't suffered some kind of devastating loss in the storm. Lives were lost, and he was simultaneously preparing to place bodies into graves and blankets onto tables.

I was suddenly both sad and well again. In fact, I was more than well. I was healed from my embarrassing detour into self-pity. Upon returning to my synagogue in Melville, I sent out a mass email urging friends and congregants to become "backdoor people" and bring needed items to the church immediately.

By Sunday, we'd sent more than 10 cars and trucks full of food, and our youth group was sorting and collecting new donations. Good deeds have power in themselves, but their greatest power is that they produce other good deeds. People want to help, and good deeds show them how. This is why I believe that churches, synagogues and mosques are not just houses of worship; they are houses of hope.

I thank God for what they do not only for the victims of disasters, but also for the helpers of the victims. They help victims see that they're not alone, and they also help the helpers shake off the spiritually corrosive effects of self-pity, impatience and anger. We serve ourselves best when we serve others. We heal ourselves best when we heal others. It's just that simple, but it's just not that easy.

So let me urge you, my dear readers, to find a back door to some healing place near your home, and walk through that door today with your family and friends. This is our best way to believe that the good in us will win. This is our best way to find each other and our best way to find God.

In Job 14:7-9 we read: "There is hope for a tree; If it is cut down it will renew itself; Its shoots will not cease. If its roots are old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, at the scent of water it will bud and produce branches like a sapling." We have been cut down, but our roots are old in the earth and yet we can smell the waters of hope. Our good deeds are our leaves, and so soon after the great whirlwind at the scent of water, they are growing again.

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