The tsunami and us
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
January 5, 2005
Poor Rowan Williams. In the January 2 Telegraph, the Archbishop of Canterbury writes, "The question: How can you believe in a G-d who permits suffering on this scale? is therefore very much around at the moment. . ." The Telegraph headline writer described the Archbishop’s message as "Of course this makes us doubt G-d’s existence."
One presumes that some time before reaching the pinnacle of the Anglican Church, with 70 million members world wide, the learned Archbishop knew of natural disasters, and had wrestled with the questions of theodicy that they raise. Indeed for one who believes in a perfect just G-d, the incurable illness of even a single child raises identical theological issues. It is a poorly thought out faith indeed that only contemplates these matters when tragedy strikes close to home or in great magnitude.
But then again, Dr. Williams, who was once hailed as the Anglican counterpart to the Chief Rabbi for his erudition, has long since revealed himself as an empty suit. That became clear from his condemnation of war in Iraq as "immoral" – a judgment so obvious in his view that it did not even require argument. "The moral issue," he wrote, "is whether the West is the best judge of the needs of the region, especially when that judgment appears to overrule local concerns."
Did the good divine’s cultural relativism lead him to imagine that the tens of thousands of victims of poison gas found in Saddam’s mass graves, or those dropped feet first into meat grinders, or the millions afraid to ever have a conversation with another human being for fear that he or she might be a government informer, had no "concerns" with their fate?
If one perceives Hashem’s role in the world as purely reactive, as doing nothing more than passing out packets of reward and punishment to human beings, Williams’s discomfiture is understood. It is impossible, in those terms, to make sense of the sudden deaths of so many, including tens of thousands children. Jews, however, know that Hashem is also guiding the world towards its ultimate fulfillment, and that His Will is to shower as much of His Good upon us. That is what the Midrash means when it describes the Jewish people as knowing the "true nature (ofiya) of their G-d" (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 148).
The way of the nations of the world, says the Midrash, is to approach judgment wearing black mourning clothes, to grow their beards in an unkempt fashion, and to refrain from cutting their fingernails in anticipation of a judgment. But the Jewish people approach the judgment of Rosh Hashana dressed in their finest clothes, freshly barbered, fingernails neatly trimmed, and they eat and drink with joy.
If the judgment of Rosh Hashanah were only one of reward and punishment, what could explain our confidence and joy? But we know Hashem’s true nature is to want to shower us with good, and therefore we are confident that our judgment will be a favorable one.
Knowing that Hashem’s deepest Will is to bring good, of course, only makes last week’s events more horrifying for us, not more comprehensible. For it cannot be Hashem’s deepest Will (ratzono b’etzem) to destroy a significant portion of His world and hundreds of thousands of human beings created in His image. Indeed the Gemara (Berachos 59a) describes earthquakes as the result of two tears shed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu into the Great Ocean.
To ponder what calculus of reward and punishment could explain each of those killed, or distinguish between those killed and those saved, is to miss the magnitude of last week’s events entirely: In order to bring the world to its fulfillment and the ultimate good, Hashem was forced, k’vayachol, to act against His fundamental Will and destroy a significant portion of the world He created.
What can we take away from events of such magnitude? As the Gemara (Yevamos 63a) says, "No punishment comes to the world but for Yisrael." That does not mean, as HaRav HaGaon Usher Weiss explained to me this week, that the exclusive reason for every natural disaster is to arouse Klal Yisrael. There is something obscene about thinking that a hundred thousand people died only so that we might be aroused in some way (especially given the diminished sensitivity with which we respond to even those events on our very doorsteps today).
It does, however, mean that we must recognize in the terrifying nature of such events that some response is demanded from us, some form of teshuva. But what? The following is based on what I heard last week from one of the world’s leading ba’alei hashkafa, who based himself on the words of the Maharal of Prague and the Vilna Gaon.
"Lo tohu bara’a – Not to remain formless did [Hashem] create the world; He fashioned it to be inhabited" (Yeshayahu 45:18). Originally all was tohu, formless, filled with primordial matter, chomer, lacking any shape or definition. Only when Hashem said, "Let there be light . . .," was form imposed on the undifferentiated matter. That light was the light of Torah.
Human history parallels cosmic history. Chazal describe the first two thousand years of human history as the years of tohu. Only when Avraham Avinu, at the age of 52, began to proclaim that the house (i.e., the world) has a master, did the period of tohu end, and the 2,000 years of Torah begin.
Avraham revealed that the world has a purpose because it has a Creator. His descendants went down to Egypt in order to be born there as a nation. They descended into a nation of people who were like beasts in their pure physicality – "their flesh is the flesh of donkeys (chamorim)" (Yechezkel 23:20). And from Egypt were they born in order to accept the Torah – the ultimate tzura (form) of the world because it is the ultimate revelation of Hashem. Had Klal Yisrael not accepted the Torah, the world would have returned to its orginal formless state of undifferentiated materiality, tohu va’vohu.
As human beings, our purpose is to be creators in the Divine image, and that means above all shaping ourselves, giving ourselves a unique identity. We are required to give purpose and direction to our life.
Without that direction the tzuras ha’adam is absent, and we are living lives of tohu – lives without purpose, without order; prey to every random impulse. We are, as the philosopher Ortega y Gasset once described youth, "everything in potentiality, nothing in actuality." Until we give shape to our lives, make choices, control our impulses, we are like the original undifferentiated chomer -- pure potential without form.
Only those who possess the tzuras ha’adam can bring the world to its final purpose, the recognition of Hashem. Only those capable of making choices, who have gained control over their impulses can give honor to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, for honor can only come from those who exercise free will, who have shaped themselves.
The ultimate tzuras ha’adam is the Jew formed by the Torah – "You [alone] are called Man." When that ultimate tzuras ha’adam is missing so too is Hashem, k'vayachol, absent from the world. And the world loses its form.
The Gemara (Berachos 59a) describes earthquakes as produced by two tears shed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu into the Great Ocean over "His children dwelling in pain among the nations." When the Jewish people are not living according to the Torah in their Land, the essential tzuras ha’adam is missing from the world.
Just as we cry over what we are lacking, Hashem sheds tears over His Torah that cannot be revealed by His people. In a world lacking the tzuras ha’adam, nature begins to return to tohu. There is no order, random forces take over, nothing adheres and joins together, for only that which has form can join to other things possessing form.
Hashem’s tears symbolize the chaos: His crying a world without apparent order. Tears, dima’ot, come from a root denoting mixture and confusion. Crying, bechi, too is from the same root as confusion, n’vucha.
The Great Ocean is a place of tohu, a place incapable of fulfilling the purpose for which Hashem formed the world – to be inhabited. The water filling the ocean is the paradigm of chomer, it has no shape of its own, but can only take on the shape of whatever container is found.
A world engulfed in water is, then, a world in which form is lacking.
Confronted with such a world our task is to reexamine our lives. To ask ourselves: Have I given order and shape to my life? Do I represent the tzuras ha’adam that is the ultimate goal of the Torah to form? Does my life proclaim the tzelem Elokim, and thus the One Who created me?
Only if we, the Jewish people, give direction to our lives in that fashion can we look forward to a day when all is revealed, to a world of order not chaos, a world in which everything makes sense – the world for which we pray daily in which "a new light will shine forth on Zion."
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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