“Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” We have heard that phrase from political leaders, religious figures and so many “regular” people over the last few years.

Whether it was in connection with terrorist attacks in Orlando, Florida, at The Pulse Nightclub; the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris; the attack during an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England; mowing down pedestrians with vehicles in Manchester, Nice, Frankfurt or Barcelona, we always hear from our leaders that their thoughts and prayers are with the victims. Although it is a nice sentiment, those words are beginning to ring hollow to me.

Most recently, we heard that phrase repeated in relation to the unbelievable devastation brought by nature to the Texas and Louisiana coastlines. In this case, people from around the nation showed that thoughts and prayers were not enough. There was an immediate need to jump into action to save hundreds, if not thousands, of people and animals before the rain and flood waters could claim their lives. Local, state and federal authorities initiated a disaster plan even as the storm approached.

It was clearly not enough. Private volunteers saw a need to get involved and did not wait for an invitation. Texas men and women launched a multitude of boats, trucks and high water vehicles in an effort to save as many as possible. Not to be outdone, citizens from neighboring Louisiana showed up in great numbers, towing so many boats behind that they were dubbed ‘The Cajun navy.”

What was the best part of these brave and inspiring efforts?

No one was asked about their political views before being rescued. No one inquired about others’ sexuality, no one was left behind because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs, no one was asked to show proof of citizenship. We witnessed blacks helping whites, gay people and straight people working together, immigrants and those born in the United States hand in hand. For a short time, the citizens of Houston and those who came to help came together as one people, one nation with a common goal.

The Talmud teaches us “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Many peoples’ worlds were indeed saved during these dark and trying days.

The question about how can God allow these events to occur comes up often in trying times such as those mentioned. The question cannot be answered in the space allowed in this column.

There is a concept, though, that God is, was and always will be a constant presence in the universe. Jews refer to it as Ein Sof, literally an unending God. Christians refer to God as the Alpha and the Omega, symbolizing that God is both the beginning and the end. God is the one constant in the universe and does not change. People, however, can and do change.

Wouldn’t this be a great time to pick up with what we witnessed during Hurricane Harvey and continue on with that behavior? How refreshing it would be to see neighbor continuing to help neighbor, to show with actions that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. In the end, we all want the same things from life. We pray for good health and hope to see our children grow up safe and happy, with food on the table and a roof over their heads. That really is not too much to ask.

We have shown, if only for a short time, that we can put aside our differences to help one another. Can we learn from this experience and perhaps change how we approach those who have different beliefs, to try to help one another and treat each other with respect? We have already shown that we can do it when we have to do it. My thoughts and prayers hope that we still can.

Rabbi Gary Berenson is the rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim and also serves as the executive director of The Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. He can be reached at:

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