Spring in Kansas meant blooming flowers, longer days, thunder storms, and tornado warnings. As a child I was taught to be prepared for a cyclone. We had drills in school to train us to how to calmly make a line, file into the hall, sit down without talking, and put our heads on our knees and cover them with our hands. We also learned that if the tornado siren sounded as we were walking to or from school we should run to the nearest house to take cover. If there were no houses nearby then we should throw ourselves into a ditch and again protect our heads.
These instructions were repeated so many times that they became a part of me. And yet, I do not remember once hearing a tornado siren in the middle of the day.They usually came late at night. In truth, they were probably at about eight in the evening rather than at midnight. However, since my bedtime was seven it always seemed like the middle of the night when my parents would rouse me from a deep sleep. They would throw a raincoat over my pajamas and grab the flashlight. We would run across the street where my best friends lived and go down into their basement.
It was an unfinished basement, musty and damp, used as a laundry room, storage, and a playground for rainy days. There was an old couch, a few chairs, and some mats on the floor. I think the idea was that the children could lie on the mats and go back to sleep. That rarely happened.
How could we fall back asleep when there was so much excitement? We had friends to giggle with, grown-up conversations of our mothers to eavesdrop on, and weather updates on the transistor radio to listen to. Our fathers were usually not with us. Instead they would congregate upstairs on the back porch and check the sky for funnels. Eventually the all-clear would sound and we would go home and back to sleep. The following morning in school the tornado warning would be the main topic of conversation.
As I grew older, more often than not, I was awake for the inevitable sounding of the tornado sirens of the springtime. That did not take away from the excitement, though. Somehow, as children, the knowledge that tornadoes destroy, injure, and even kill, went over our heads. We enjoyed the change of routine and gathering in the basement.
All that changed when I was almost twelve years old. Spring had come and gone without many tornado warnings. It had been a normal summer. One evening in September the sky was cloudy and there was a little rain. Without a siren sounding we were struck by a tornado.
I remember sitting in the family room with my parents. Suddenly, the lights went out. We heard the sound of breaking glass and a loud noise like a train whistle. My father grabbed the transistor radio but when the announcer announced, It’s a beautiful night here in Kansas, my mother threw it across the room. We huddled together while my mother recited Shema Yisroel and sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
And then it was all over. There was complete quiet and we began to move carefully. Gingerly my parents found the flashlight and opened the box of Shabbat candles. We had enough light to know that we were not injured.
There was a knock at the door. Our next door neighbor had a gash on his forehead which my mother, a nurse, taped up. She and my aunt, who lived down the street and was also a nurse, went door-to-door skirting fallen electrical lines, handing out Shabbat candles, and offering first aid.
The night had been full of near misses. In our house, for example, the windows were broken in every room except the family room where we sat. Nearby a family had rearranged their baby’s room that day, moving his crib to a new spot. Had they not done so, the baby would have been crushed by the tree that blew through the wall where the baby’s bed had been just several hours earlier. A classmate of mine, home alone, heard the sound of the tornado and locked himself into a large cupboard. He stayed there until his parents came home and found him safe in that cupboard between all the debris.
We learned later that the tornado had developed overhead and radar had not picked up on it. Despite the extensive damage, few had been injured. In fact, the worse injury happened to the man working in a liquor store. He had a cut artery from the broken glass.
I was not tuned into the Jewish months at that point in my life. I knew the tornado had happened several weeks before Rosh Hashanah but I did not realize the significance of it happening in Elul. I had never learned that it was on the first of Elul that Moses went back up to Mount Sinai, following the Sin of the Golden Calf, to pray for forgiveness for the Jewish people. I had never heard the song, The King is in the Field, nor its explanation that HaShem comes closer to us with the beginning of Elul. No one had told me that although we can always repent, the forty days preceding Yom Kippur are a time of special Divine mercy and forgiveness.
Although I did not know any of this there was an important lesson for me that night of the tornado. Why had HaShem made the one tornado that struck my home happen in the fall and not the spring? Why had He caused it to develop overhead so there were absolutely no warning signs? Why had there been so few injuries and no deaths among the extensive damage? Perhaps it was to open my eyes to the reality that there are miracles happening daily. I think that Elul was the first time that I began to understand that HaShem had not just created the world and stopped. Rather, He created it and stayed involved with it and all the mundane details that happen every day. Thus the foundation was laid for me to learn more about His Torah. Almost fifty years have passed since the night of the tornado. I have not forgotten its lesson.