Thursday, September 01, 2005

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, injured scores of others, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. It 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. As proof, he notes that the hurricane hit Condoleeza Rice's home state of Louisiana. (Actually, she's from Alabama; but why let facts cloud the issue!) 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, who is director of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment's research center, 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 by Al-Mlaifi a day after hundreds of Muslims in a religious procession 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 “interpretation” explaining that the victim’s sins caused his own suffering has violated the prohibition of verbal abuse. Many Jewish philosophers wrestle with the question of theodicy (why bad things happen to good people), and some explanations 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, existential level, and fancy, 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 “why” question, why bad things happen to good people, is unfathomable. It’s like trying to appreciate the beauty of a tapestry from the reverse side; you simply cannot make out an intelligible design. Any exploration of the “why” question is simply a dead end. 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, Halacha requires that we mourn bitterly and tear our clothes. This is because Judaism demands that we be enraged by tragedy.

To Solovietchik, the real question that has to be asked is the “how” question: How do I respond to tragedy? We do not know why the world contains unexplained evil; however, we can endeavor to make the world a better place. Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human ingenuity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is tikkun olam, rebuilding the world.

The tikkun olam response to this tragedy is to join hands 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 figerpointers, 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 rather than point fingers.


here's a link to it in JPost:

http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1125831261300&p=1006953079865

84 comments:

H. A. Massig said...

Thank you for this post; I comment at hassagot.blogs.com/hassagot/2005/09/katrina_and_lov.html

H. A. Massig

SephardiLady said...

Thank you so much Rabbi for such a beautiful post. This entire Shabbat I have been bothered by talk that this grave and horrible tradegy is related to the Disengagement. I have tried to give mussar to some, but I did not have the proper words. I hope you don't mind if I use your piece at our next Shabbat table and, of course, credit it to you.

Whether the Disengagement and the disasters in the Southern US are related should not be of concern right now, especially while the wounds are fresh and people's lives are shattered. I frankly find it sickening that people in the religious community can sit around and theorize in the face of such tragedy. Our brains would be used much more effectively on sending aid and teaching our children to be thankful for everything they have and other lessons that can be learned from the most horrific footage I believe I have ever seen in America.

April said...

Beautifully said.

May G-d bring us all peace and the ability to work together.

JuliaKB said...

Rabbi,

this is a very thoughtful article. I do have to take issue, though, with your seeming defence of President Bush. There were two tragedies in New Orleans-- natural disaster and man-made disaster. You outline the proper response to first (and it is analogous to the tsunami) very well.

But I believe that the proper response to the second one (from defunding levee mainantanance projects, to eating cake and struming a guitar while people died, to failing to send in the army, to having significant portions of LA National guard and all of their high water equipment in Iraq, to covering for their actions now by praising incompetent head of FEMA and lying about their actions and those of the local leaders) is righteous indignation and demand for thourogh accountability. After all, he who saves one life saves the world entire. So what does it mean about those who stood by and allowed countless people to die?

chaim said...

JuliaKB

Important point. That sentence simply meant to say that a good deal of the criticism of Bush is agenda driven finger poiting: that he sent soldiers to Iraq, that he neglected the environment, that he didn't care about blacks. Some of the criticism, particularly about the slow response, may very well turn out to be 100% correct. I was just noting how for many, agendas, rather than honest reflection, drive the criticism, and that the same phenomena exists on a religious level, where agendas, not honest reflection, drive these insensitive explanations

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