A Response to Disaster

I have been asked to respond to a question by “Jewish Values Online” – an interdenominational assembly of rabbis who respond to submitted questions through Jewish lenses.  I recently received this question: What is the Jewish response – besides of course helping those in need – to environmental tragedy, like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? For starters – How do we understand a God who wreaks this kind of havoc on His creations? It is an inevitable question in times like this and I wanted to share my answer with you because many of you are asking it, as well.


The tragedy now facing Japan is of a scope that we rarely see.  The natural disasters were bad enough but the impending nuclear meltdown exacerbates the problem exponentially.  People can clean up after a flood, a tsunami, even an earthquake.  It is a lot harder to clean up from nuclear contamination.  What is our Jewish response to such a tragedy?

Of course we offer our support – moral and financial – where we can.  As Jews we encourage our national leaders to not stand idle while our neighbor bleeds.  And, of course, we engage ourselves in the debate about nuclear power – a debate which has subsided in recent years because it was not seen as a major problem.

But the theological question you ask is one that needs to be asked and answered forthrightly and clearly.

God had nothing to do with the tsunami.  God had nothing to do with the earthquake.  God had nothing to do with the nuclear meltdown.  God has nothing to do with the weather, plate tectonics or the laws of physics.  The simple truth is that whatever has happened in the world over the past 4 billion years will continue for the next 4 billion years.  The difference is that there are now people in the way and, as people, we wonder why God would do such a thing to His creatures.

That way of looking at the world is one of self-importance.  It is, in effect, saying, “How dare God do such a thing?!”  We feel cheated and undeserving of such terrible things.

Of course, our Sages and biblical authors – quite often but not always – saw weather and natural disasters, war and disease and any misfortune were sent by God as punishments, inducements to repent or warnings.  It is natural to think that and I doubt there is one culture that doesn’t think that way.  But that does not mean it is accurate or fair.

In fact, it is unfair, especially to God.  Why should God get blamed for everything that happens?  Why do we depend on the laws of nature and the laws of physics for everything but are upset at God when we are caught in the middle of a natural event?  Do we teach our children to blame God for gravity, a natural phenomenon, when they fall off their bikes?  And yet, we blame God and wonder why He punishes us when those self-same laws of gravity drop a building crane on a busy metropolitan street.

Elie Weisel was right when he said that the most pathetic figure in the bible is God.  He is always disappointed at people and everyone is always blaming Him for what happened!

It is time to stop blaming God.

It is time to recognize that what we do has consequences in God’s world.  When we build nuclear power plants on seismic faults we are asking for trouble.  Maybe not in the next ten years but certainly within the next hundred.  And the truth is, no matter how well prepared we are for natural disasters, the awesome might of nature is something we have barely any control over.

Our response to the disasters befalling Japan should be God’s response.  There is no blame for what happens in nature but there is a humane and sensitive response to those who are suffering.  The reality is that God is not going to ‘lift up the fallen’ – it is we who are doing God’s work will be the ones lifting up the fallen.  And it is also we who will have to look at our decisions about what we build and where be build and understand that the consequences of our actions can be dire.

When the midrash teaches us that God said to Noah after the Flood, “Take care of this earth because after you there is no one to fix it and sustain it,’ the rabbis were telling us two things: first, that the earth is ours to care for and what we do today affects generations to come.  Second, and I think more importantly, don’t expect God to perform miracles every time we think we deserve them.

We all want God present in times of trouble.  Many Psalms are written to reflect that in the most beautiful Hebrew poetry.  And God is present, but only if we act as we would want anyone to act towards us in our suffering: with compassion, kindness, sensitivity and love.  That is the place to find God in disasters such as these.