We should all truly feel devastated by what has transpired. With the known dead, we are witnessing one of the five most major natural disasters in the last 100 years. The human suffering, both physical and emotional, defies the imagination.
The immediate response of the international community to supply water, food and medicine is, of course, the proper immediate response. It is certainly proper to give gifts to the Red Cross and other organizations who are collecting to provide these life-saving needs, for the five million survivors who are homeless and lacking the most basic necessities.
Another response is also taught to us by our sages. In 1923, a terrible earthquake racked Japan, causing 143,000 deaths. At the time, the leader of world Jewry was the holy Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan of Radin, Poland. When this elderly sage heard about the terrible calamity in Japan, he was overwhelmed by sadness, and made a statement to world Jewry. He said that anyone who has heard of this tragedy needs to be overtaken by trembling, and ask the penetrating question, what is it that G-d wants from us? One must not say that this tragedy happened to others and not to me. If it happened in the world in which I live, I must feel part of this tragedy, and it’s my problem as well. The Chofetz Chaim said that in the olden days, when G-d wanted to send a message to the world, He would send a prophet who would deliver the message. But in our days, after the cessation of prophecy, a calamity such as this needs to be a wake-up call to the entire world, and especially to us Jews who are charged with being the Light Among the Nations, to introspect and improve our actions. The Chofetz Chaim wrote another letter to this effect a few years later, when a terrible earthquake killed thousands in Russia.
I personally took upon myself to improve my concentration in my prayers, and to pray for those who are sick and suffering in Southeast Asia, especially the children. If we don’t improve anything, the message of what has transpired will have fallen upon deaf ears, and this would be a further tragedy. Any mitzvah we take on as a result of this will tell G-d we are listening, and bring some meaning and light to a dark time in world history.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried