An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal, Quebec, and is a member of Edah's editorial board. This editorial ran in the Jerusalem Post on Monday, Sept. 5th.


What God Wants Us to Learn From Katrina

The images of suffering are overwhelming. Watching TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina, you can feel the anguish of the victims of this awful disaster. An unpredictable confluence of circumstances brought about a "perfect storm" that killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Katrina is a true human catastrophe.

As unpredictable as this hurricane may have been, the human reactions to it are all too predictable. Immediately, there is finger pointing. On the political front, President Bush is blamed for a variety of failures ranging from a slow response to the disaster to having caused the global warming which lead to the hurricane. Religious authorities with agendas of their own come to speak in God's name and blame the catastrophe on their opponents. A group called Repentance America said it was God's retribution for New Orleans being a "sin city". Repentance America did not issue any explanation why somehow, the hurricane managed to miss Las Vegas. On the Internet, a popular Israeli Rabbi is sure that this catastrophe is retribution for American support for the disengagement from Gaza. I found this opinion curious; the sobbing woman I watched on CNN who lost her daughter and was searching for her missing sons didn't strike me as a supporter of the disengagement. An of course, radical Islam couldn't miss this opportunity to dump on America either. A high-ranking Kuwaiti official, Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, said: "It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire." This confident explanation was issued a day after hundreds of Muslims were stampeded to death in Iraq.

These finger pointing explanations are not only deeply flawed, they are also deeply insensitive. The Talmud says that anyone who gives a grieving person an explanation that the victim's sins caused his own suffering has violated the prohibition of verbal abuse. Many Jewish philosophers wrestle with the question "Why bad things happen to good people? Some explanations do consider man's culpability. However, what is misunderstood is that their explorations are meant to defend God's goodness, not to torment victims of suffering by blaming them for the crime.

In fact, even the entire project of defending God's goodness is suspect. First of all, God does not need a defense attorney; He can make a case for himself. And God continues to make a case for himself in every sunrise, every leaf, every breath we take. Furthermore, any explanation we can offer will seem meaningless to sufferers. Those who are suffering feel their pain on a personal level, and abstract explanations will in no way alleviate their pain.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers a very different view of a Jewish response to suffering. He says the question, why bad things happen to good people, is unfathomable. Even worse, any answer offered will imply that we should passively accept our fate and assume that God did everything for the best. Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism actually refuses to make peace with death and tragedy. When someone dies, Jewish law requires that we mourn bitterly and tear our clothes. This is because Judaism demands that we be enraged by tragedy. To R. Solovietchik, the real question that has to be asked is: How do I respond to tragedy? Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human creativity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is to restore human dignity and rebuild the world.

The response to this tragedy is to join hands in rebuilding the world, rather than point fingers. The most important lesson of any large scale disaster is the commonality of all human beings; we have all have the same vulnerabilities and the same aspirations. Most importantly, we are all created in the same image of God. It is up to us to learn how to live together as brothers and sisters, and help each other with their burdens.

I am hopeful that besides the noisy finger pointers, most people will respond properly to this catastrophe. In the past, I have witnessed how disasters have the unique ability to unite anyone, even antagonists, in a common cause. Last January, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists gathered together in my Montreal synagogue for a service on behalf of the victims of the Asian tsunami. Representatives of the warring Sinhalese and Tamil communities both attended, and a representative of the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, thanked the Jewish community for their efforts on behalf of the disaster victims. People who normally do not talk to each other joined together in common cause. And just today, students at Montreal's Hebrew Academy, moved by the news reports they have heard, have began mobilizing fundraising and letter writing campaigns for people they have never met, the victims of Katrina.

I am too uncomfortable to issue prophetic statements. But if I have to guess what God wants in the wake of Katrina, it is a recognition that every human being shares God's image, and that every person, whether they live in Indonesia or New Orleans or Kuwait or Israel, should learn how to join hands in rebuilding the world rather than point fingers.

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