Over the last few weeks, I, like many of you, have stared at the news, watching as natural disaster after natural disaster has plagued our small corner of the earth. Wildfires. Earthquakes. Hurricanes. I have watched with fascination and horror as giant, spiraling cyclones of wind and rain have moved across the Atlantic, one after another.
Harvey, Jose, Irma, Maria.
Texas. Louisiana. The US and British Virgin Islands. Dominica. Barbuda. Haiti. Puerto Rico.
So many places.
Like the fires that raged along the US West Coast, these hurricanes were monsters. They moved across water and sea bringing disaster, chaos, destruction, and death.
We watched as so many were displaced, losing their homes, their possessions. We held our breath as loved ones went missing, and as the death toll rose. In the face of such impending destruction, I tried not to watch the chatter back and forth on social media, focusing instead on how and where we could help. Still, though, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow when an Orthodox Rabbi friend of mine, posting a satellite image of Hurricane Irma, captioned it, “the finger of Hashem,” the finger of God.
It’s quite an image, isn’t it? These hurricanes are larger than some states, and they are circular, so you can imagine God placing a finger in the water, and moving it across, drawing up waves and wind as he goes. No doubt before our knowledge of meteorology, science, and climate change, it was easy to identify these natural disasters as just that, the finger of God, the will of God. Our Torah speaks of cities like Egypt, Sodom and Gomorrah damaged or wiped out by natural disasters as per the will of Adonai. Later books of the Tanakh talk of places like Nineveh being threatened with destruction but being saved due to their acts of teshuva. Together, these texts paint a picture of a vengeful God that uses nature to punish those whom have sinned too greatly, or whom have threatened the livelihood of our Israelite ancestors.
And yet, as I read that comment that Hurricane Irma was the finger of Hashem, I said to myself, “I don’t buy it.” And I don’t. I don’t buy that the men, women, and children of the islands in the Caribbean had sinned in ways that others in the world hadn’t. I don’t buy that they were deserving of destruction, of fear, of grief, of sorrow. These hurricanes, and natural disasters more generally, don’t seem to distinguish between race, religion, sexual orientation, or class; they ravage all peoples of all kinds. In fact, I wholeheartedly disagree with a theological understanding of natural disasters and their cause.
Still, I can certainly understand where this thinking comes from. It is easy to begin to blame ourselves, and to wonder if we had somehow done something differently, something better, if the disasters would have stayed away. Our Talmud acknowledges that Jews are natural worriers and that our past has caused us a great deal of suffering. Any disaster, then, is naturally a cause for us to attempt take responsibility:
Whenever the celestial lights are eclipsed it is a bad sign for the Jews because they are used to their wounds. It is likened to a teacher who comes to school with a strap in his hand. Who worries? The one who is used to suffering every day is the one who worries.
The Talmud goes on to acknowledge that, despite our worries, we should not view natural disasters as “acts of God,” but rather that God has allowed the natural order of nature to take its course on the earth. In other words, sometimes earthquakes and hurricanes and fires happen. As the Talmud explains, we must be willing to look at the issue in the reverse. For example, we often call negative acts of nature as unfair, but sometimes nature’s growth, according to the rabbis, can also be just as unfair: “Suppose a person stole a measure of wheat and went and sowed it in the ground; it is right that it should not grow, yet the world pursues its natural course.” Nature is nature, the Talmud tells us. Sometimes it is fair. Sometimes it is not. Mostly, it just is.
Beyond the lessons of the Talmud, the Jewish view of God has also evolved since the vengeful jealous God of the Bible. For most of us, at least in the Reform Movement, we believe in a God that created a world for us in which we must be willing to endure the good and the bad. There is nothing personal about a natural disaster—a hurricane, an earthquake, a flood; rather, it is the world pursuing its natural course. Whether we view it as fair or not, it is the way of the world. In other words, when a natural disaster occurs, Judaism teaches not to place blame, not on God, not on each other, not on sins or mistakes. Instead, when a disaster occurs, the expectation is that we will help. That we will make whole what nature sought to tear apart.
The Talmud tells us: “How do we know that if a person sees another person drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers, s/he is bound to save him? From the verse, ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor!’”
Moses Maimonides states that “any who sees a poor person begging and hides his eyes and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as it says, ‘Do not harden your heart or close your hand from your poor fellow.’”
We cannot control what nature throws at us. We can, however, control our responses. Do we sit idly by and let others do the work of repairing what has been broken? Or do we do everything in our power to step forward, to be the first volunteers, to set an example? I do not believe that God had a hand in Hurricane Irma, or in any of the other natural disasters we have recently witnessed. But I do believe that our hands—the hands God gave us—have the power to make all the difference.