Natural Disasters: What Can We Learn from Them?

Dear Rabbi Fried,

We’re all agonizing over the untold suffering going on in New Orleans and throughout the area, and the question of “how could God do this?” is on the lips of many could you offer any insight?


Dear Joseph,

The appropriate question we ought to be dealing with is, “what can we learn from this?” rather than “how could God do this?”

Our first Jewish reaction needs to immediately be action. Besides our prayers for the welfare of the victims of this calamity, we can contact Jewish Family Service to participate in providing basic humanitarian needs for the victims. The needs are as diverse as donating toiletries and clothing, to taking refugees into our homes. If one would like to specifically help the Jews of the stricken communities be provided with kosher food, religious articles, educational needs and more, donations can be sent to Katrina Hurricane Relief c/o Agudath Israel of America.

After taking action, we can learn the lesson of humility. After our somewhat lofty view “from the heights” of modern America, we looked down on the third world countries recently stricken by the terrible tsunami, thinking we would have reacted more quickly and “it wouldn’t have happened to us.” And here we are with untold thousands of starving people and floating bodies in a modern American city turned Pompeii.

Next, we need to learn compassion, care and concern. This is something that happened to fellow Americans and fellow Jews, and an entire Jewish community has been uprooted. We need to feel for these people and share their pain and suffering. 

In addition, we and all Americans also have the opportunity, once it’s so close to home, to feel the pain and suffering of entire cities of our brethren in Israel who so recently had their homes bulldozed over and entire communities were uprooted – now living in temporary and inadequate quarters and in want of basic humanitarian needs. Many seemed to take the attitude that the Israelis will get over it, it’s not so bad, and now we see firsthand what it is like. The Jewish way to react to the suffering of others is to put yourself in their shoes and truly be sensitive to their pain.

Finally, we need to view such a calamity as a wake-up call for all of us – to improve our actions. This week begins the month of Elul, when Jews around the world begin sounding the call of the shofar every morning. This is a reminder that Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner and the world is about to be judged for another year. The fact this happened precisely at this time of the Jewish year is very significant. Who can forget that the twin towers were also leveled just before Rosh Hashanah not so long ago. Many saw in this a profound message and improved their ways, appreciated life and family much more and made new commitments to God. But for most it didn’t last long, and the return to old ways came swiftly.

Many websites from our neighbors of other religions are blaming what happened on the immorality of the French Quarter, as they blamed the immorality of many of the areas hard hit by the tsunami. Our reaction to that is that we are not prophets (hence, we’re a non-prophet organization), and who really knows why God picks a certain area to teach the world a lesson?

Rather than blame it on those who have been hit, we would be better served to use this as a catalyst to look inward and make firm decisions to improve ourselves, to be a better mensch, person and Jew. The horrible killing, raping and looting going on in New Orleans should shock us into realizing how low we can sink so quickly. The question we need to deal with presently is not “Where is God?” but rather “Where is man? Where are we?!”

With hope and prayers for a healthy and safe New Year for us all and for peace and tranquility in Israel.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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