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 world country.
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.
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 matter.
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 sinning scapegoats?
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. That is the spiritual meaning of Hurricane Katrina.
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.