Disasters: Jewish Response, Pt. 2

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Last week you wrote that events like the tsunami should be a cause for introspection and self-improvement. But I’m having a lot of trouble philosophically with all the devastation caused, which just seems so random. How could a compassionate God allow this to happen?


Dear Maxine,

This is truly a difficult question, the suffering of the innocent in ways that defy our imagination and, thankfully, our experience. There are many among our people who have witnessed and endured suffering even far beyond what has transpired in Southeast Asia, in the unspeakable events of the Holocaust. This is, however, an important distinction between the two events. The Holocaust and all related calamities were perpetrated by man, and an earthquake or tsunami, even according to the insurance companies, is deemed an “act of G-d.”

The question of the suffering of the innocent is posed by Moses in the Torah, and has been pondered over by our greatest prophets and thinkers ever since. One thing is clear in Jewish thought, that there’s no random suffering. I was deeply appalled by the title of a recent article in a major respected magazine, “Nature the Terrorist.”

Although the author was perplexed by the tragic events that have transpired, I felt this epitomized human haughtiness to relegate events that are beyond our comprehension to acts of senseless terror. In the book of Job, where we read of the suffering of a righteous man, G-d does not maintain the legacy of Yassir Arafat. There are times when a Supreme Wisdom transcends our ability to grasp the necessity of the unfolding of events, which, either on a national or an individual scale, seem unnecessary and inexplicable.

Victor Frankly, the eminent psychotherapist and survivor of Auschwitz, writes, “Either belief in G-d is unconditional or it is not belief at all. If it is unconditional, it will stand and face the fact that six million died in the Nazi Holocaust; if it is not unconditional it will fall away if only a single innocent child has to die…. There is no point in bargaining with G-d, say, by arguing: ‘Up to six thousand or even one million victims of the Holocaust I maintain my belief in Thee, but from one million upward nothing can be done any longer and I am sorry but I must renounce my belief in Thee.’”

And so, the Jewish response to all disaster is to regard what has happened as, even if entirely confounding, somehow still entirely just — the essence, in fact, of the blessing we recite upon personal tragedy, “Baruch Ata…Dayan Ha’emet,” “Blessed are You…the True Judge.” We recite this blessing, and engage in introspection. We believe that our actions have a cosmic effect, and, as we discussed last week, by improving ourselves we will have added some everlasting meaning and eternity to the loss of others.

May we celebrate happier occasions in the future.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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