What We Know and What We Don’t
Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I have heard some people suggesting that there
is link between the recent Israeli evacuation from Gaza
with the catastrophic devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina
in the Gulf Coast. Citing Biblical statements they are claiming
that throughout history nations of the world have been punished
for hurting the Jewish people. Since the United States pressured
Israel to disengage from Gaza, which is against the will
of G-d according to this theory, this country was punished,
tit for tat, with the worst natural disaster in the USA
that forced the evacuation of millions of people from Southern
United States, and continues to be plagued by inept rescue
efforts, rendering this mighty nation as helpless as a third
Some are even comparing the recent order to
forcibly evacuate the 10,000 remaining residents in New
Orleans with the forcible evacuation of approximately the
same number of Jewish residents in Gaza.
Here are some links
where these issues are discussed.
Major "Acts Of God" That Coincided With The Timing
of US Pressure On Isr
pressure Israel, storms
Knish - Hand of G-d, Flood
Mind you, not all are arguing that this correlation
needs to publicized or discussed. Rather they see it as
unspeakable concern among the faithful.
I would like to have your opinion on this
While it’s true that Torah way of thinking
see the entire universe as one integral whole and that our
actions in one place of the world affects events in another,
great care must be taken before drawing any direct parallels
between events, especially catastrophes that have taken
the lives of many innocent people.
None of us know G-d’s mysterious ways and
it is therefore quite presumptuous, if not outright arrogant,
to definitively state that any particular catastrophe is
a result of any given act, either on or off location.
If we were to take such license, just where
do you stop? What about the six million who perished in
the Holocaust – is that too a direct result or punishment
of some human action?
What would prevent us from “finger pointing”
every time a disaster happened, looking to lay blame on
Whether it be a “natural” disaster or one
perpetrated by men, the Torah advocates that we cry out
to G-d when innocent people die. The entire basis of prayer
essentially is stating that we pray for healing the sick
and the dying, and do not attempt to “justify” their suffering
by attributing it to their or someone else’s sins. If we
were to correlate every illness to a direct punishment,
we then should not have the right to pray for anyone and
try to change the course Divinely destined upon the ill.
You may then ask question: Isn’t every
event in the world controlled by Divine Providence, even
a leaf blowing in the wind, definitely a major hurricane
that killed and misplaced so many people? And isn’t
it true that the concept of Divine reward and punishment
is a form of cause and effect (totally unlike the superficial
and circumstantial nature of human reward and punishment)?
Just as a hand gets burned when placed in fire, so too do
our actions bring upon us various consequences.
And what about the words of Maimonides: “When
a calamity strikes the public we must see it as a result
of our evil actions. We must cry out, examine our lives
and correct our ways. To say that the calamity is merely
a natural phenomenon and a chance occurrence is insensitive
and cruel (Laws of Fasting 1:2-3)?
Doesn’t it then make sense to conclude that
a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina is an effect of our own
actions? Why then can’t we say that the Gulf coast disaster
was caused by Israel’s disengagement from Gaza?
The answer, my friend, lies in the very words
of Maimonides. Maimonides does not say that a calamity should
elicit a “witch hunt” to find the wicked culprits
that brought the tragedy upon us. He says the exact opposite:
Every individual that witnessed, experienced or heard about
a calamity must not ignore it, but see it as a personal
wake up call for introspection, to “examine our lives
and correct our ways.”
So, yes, Hurricane Katrina should not be seen
merely as “a natural phenomenon and a chance occurrence;”
that would be “insensitive and cruel.” It should serve as
a wake up call – to wake ourselves up, not for us to wake
up others and clamor for a scapegoat to blame. That would
defeat the entire purpose: Instead of focusing on our personal
behavior we deflect the entire experience as someone’s else’s
problem and caused by another’s sins. That’s the easy way
out: Hey, it’s not my problem; it was caused by the Israelis
and the American government.
Maimonides is telling us, no! It is your
problem. When a calamity strikes, you have to look into
your own heart, examine your own behavior and repair your
ways. Is there a more sensitive thing we can do for the
suffering? The greatest honor we can bestow on those that
have tragically died or been misplaced is to become better
people because of them…
In conclusion: The Gulf Coast disaster should
cause us to privately and discreetly look at our own lives
and improve our ways. But it should not become a mud slinging
contest looking for whom to blame.
There are things we know and there are things
we don’t know. There are events that the Torah specifically
tells us happened because of human sins, like the great
flood in the times of Noah, or great fire that destroyed
the city of Sodom. The Torah has the authority to tell us
that. But in all other situations, where we do not have
a Divine authority informing us otherwise, we simply do
not have enough information or insight to determine the
exact cause for any given catastrophe.
And that lack of knowledge should not be seen
as a liability. Our sages teach that we are not given a
challenge that we cannot face. What we know – and
what we don’t know – is exactly what we need
to fulfill our mission in life. The fact that we do not
know the correlation of different events in life means that
we don’t need to know that information
to achieve our calling.
Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the greatest natural
disaster in modern American history, should definitely make
us think. I for one cannot say that events in the Gulf Coast
are not related to events in the Gaza coast or for that
matter anywhere else in the world. But we surely cannot
say that it is connected.
What we do need to know is that we must always
feel responsible and see that our actions affect the world
around us. “A person must see himself and the world
as equally balanced on two ends of the scale; by doing one
good deed, he tips the scale and brings for himself and
the entire world redemption and salvation” (Maimonides,
Laws of Repentance, 3:4). A person is responsible to say
that the entire world was created for me; when you save
a life you save the universe” (Mishne Sanhedrin 37a).
When a calamity strikes, especially one that
affects large numbers of people, we need to know that we
must look into our selves and become better people.
Beyond that is G-d’s domain.