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Any hope that the worst of Hurricane Katrina had passed was destroyed Tuesday, as the levees protecting New Orleans from flooding gave way. It is hard to imagine how the Big Easy and the city’s 500,000 residents ever will recover.

Still, as the ancient Rabbi Tarfon famously declared, “You are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” And be sure, the task ahead is monumental.

Already saddled with a busted federal budget and the mounting costs of overseas conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, our nation now must find a way to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees from New Orleans and all the other people who had their livelihoods and homes destroyed in the storm.

By now there should be no question that ordinary Americans will respond. As for their government, the jury is still out.

Time and again, the Bush administration has failed to answer the call for shared national sacrifice in the face of shared national challenges. Amazingly, despite mounting deficits and military escapades, the White House continues to push an economic program that benefits the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everyone else.

The Jewish tradition teaches that times of personal and national disaster should be transformed into times of reflection and improvement. As we pray for the victims of this week’s natural disaster and their families, we also hope that out of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina will come a newfound sense of mutual commitment and sacrifice.

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