There was a time when natural disasters were seen purely as divine retribution. After the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, Jesuit priest Gabriel Malagrida declared “It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event… It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance.” He recommended praying six hours a day in response.
However, that earthquake sparked a sharp change in popular attitudes. When the prime minister was asked by King Joseph I what to do, he said, “We bury the dead and heal the living,” and then proceeded to rebuild the city.
Voltaire wrote Candide, a harsh rebuttal of Leibniz’ attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people. Kant wrote essays explaining that earthquakes are a natural phenomenon. Natural disasters were no longer understood as the punishment for specific sins.
However, many continued to persist in trying to see every tragedy as being caused by a specific sin. Even in response to the Holocaust, such explanations are offered; some see it a punishment for too much Zionism among European Jews, while others see it as a punishment for too little Zionism.
It is tempting as well to blame hurricanes Harvey and Irma on some sin. However, these finger-pointing explanations are deeply flawed and deeply insensitive. The Talmud says that anyone who tells a grieving person that the victim’s sins caused his own suffering has violated the prohibition of verbal abuse. Jewish philosophers wrestle with “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Some explanations consider man’s culpability. However, their explorations are meant to defend God’s goodness, not to torment victims of suffering by blaming them for the crime.
‘To Rav Soloveitchik, the only relevant question is: How do I respond to tragedy?’
In fact, the entire project of defending God’s goodness is suspect. First of all, God does not need an 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, because abstract explanations will in no way alleviate their pain.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers a different Jewish response to suffering. He says “Why bad things happen to good people?” is an unfathomable question. Even worse, any answer offered will imply that we should passively accept our fate. Rav Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism refuses to make peace with tragedy. When someone dies, Jewish law requires that we mourn bitterly and tear our clothes, because Judaism demands that we be enraged by tragedy.
To Rav Soloveitchik, the only relevant question is: How do I respond to tragedy? Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act; to comfort those who have suffered, and to use human creativity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is to restore human dignity and rebuild the world.
The right response to tragedy is to open our hands in charity. The most important lesson of any disaster is the commonality of all human beings; we 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.
It is inspiring to watch how people have responded to Harvey and Irma. Mormon volunteers have come to clean up Orthodox synagogues, and Chabad rabbis have gone out to help rural Texans. People have pulled together, and brought a divine love to those who are suffering.
I am too uncomfortable to issue prophetic statements about God’s intentions. But if I have to guess what God wants in the wake of Harvey and Irma, it is a recognition that every person, wherever they live, should learn how to join hands in rebuilding the world rather than point finger.