Lessons from Katrina


Someone forwarded a letter to me — unfortunately without the signature — by some pundit “explaining” that Katrina hit New Orleans because Louisiana is the home state of Condoleeza Rice. This catastrophic hurricane with all its attendant loss of life and property is punishment for Condoleeza Rice’s “forcing” Israel to abandon Gaza.

Probably it isn’t even necessary to comment on such convoluted reasoning, but I will anyway. First of all, Condi Rice is a lifelong, very warm and very vocal friend of Israel. And needless to say, Sharon’s four-year, single-minded program of imposing a unilateral “solution” to the Arab question long predates her accession to the State Department. Second of all, if she was really the cause of the hurricane, then Divine wrath should have struck Washington and not New Orleans. In fact, there should have been a fire in her own personal kitchen. Why are all these other people suffering for her?!

Aside from all of that, the larger question of understanding G-d’s ways cannot be addressed by facile and ad hoc “reasoning” like that of my unknown correspondent. The entire Book of Koheles addresses the question of the suffering of the righteous, and concludes that human beings can never fully fathom G-d’s ways.

There is no question that a blow like Katrina will hit the whole country and not just New Orleans, Biloxi and Gulfport. One can easily point to a long list of sins committed by America and say this one or that one must be “the reason.” The left might say it’s because we unlawfully removed Saddam from his rightful position as beloved leader of his innocent country. The right (with rather more sense) might say it’s because of the pornography and immorality that pollute the land. It’s always a good idea, when tragedy strikes, to examine one’s deeds and repent. But no one really knows “the” reason.

Furthermore, every single individual who lost his life or his home was struck for his own separate reason, known only to G-d. For one person it might have been a punishment for deeds known only to himself, while for another person it might have been simply his time to die, because his mission on earth was complete. Why G-d saved certain individuals and allowed others to die is simply beyond our ability to know or even to conjecture.

There are certain classic Jewish responses to catastrophes, and all of these are appropriate. One such response, as I said, is to consider one’s deeds and repent. This can be done privately by each and every person whose heart is moved by scenes of great suffering.

Another classic Jewish response is the urge to do chessed, to make donations and to help suffering victims in any way possible.

And still another classic Jewish response is to pray for the welfare of those in need of succor. Although we do not understand G-d’s ways we do believe that He hears our tefillos. In Pirkei Avos we are exhorted to “pray for the peace of the kingdom.” In particular, when we have been the beneficiaries of such a malchus shel chessed, a government and a country that has been incredibly good and generous to us Jews, it behooves us to pray for the welfare of this country, and especially so in this hour of tragedy.

Finally, it is possible to learn any number of lessons from seeing what is unfolding. Anyone whose home is intact and whose family is safe should be moved to gratitude for the daily Divine goodness that we take for granted. And anyone who looked on with equanimity at the sight of thousands of Jews being uprooted from their homes in Gaza — anyone who said to himself, “Well, thank goodness I’m safe in America and not in Israel” — should realize that safety and security are guaranteed nowhere.

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Yehouda Toledano
10 years 2 months ago

Hello and Shavoua Tov.

I couldn’t resist and not sending few world.
I heard, personally from Rav chazkel Levinstein Zatsal, that today—35 years ago—we are at the second generation of total “amei aratsut” in “hashkafa”, imagine what he would have said now-days!!!

Well, the Talmud said: “Ein pouranut baa laolam ela bishvil Yisrael”, which mean that it’s not for them but for us to learn and “do tsouhva”!!!
The “Maor vashemes”, explain that if we don’t make tshouva is like we made it appears like HKBH, “kaviachol” did something wrong “chas veshalom”!!!! Because they are not in the “business of tshouva”, so it looks… Read more »

10 years 2 months ago

“the levees that failed were precisely those that had most recently been shored up at major expense and with maximum engineering expertise”

Major expense, yes. Maximum expertise? I’m not so sure. This was NO, after all. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t have the money to do the whole system, or it might all have collapsed…

In any case, I believe that the levees on Lake Pontchartrain and the canals leading to it weren’t the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, but of the Orleans Parish Levee Board. So any federal budget cuts wouldn’t affect… Read more »

10 years 2 months ago

WADR, I think you’re viewing this backwards.

What’s abnormal about all this is not the devistation of Katrina. It’s that — quite miraculously — G-d prevented this from happening years ago. What is so surprising about the flooding of a coastal city that is built on bayou below sea level?

“All is in the hands of heaven except colds and heatstroke.” If you go outside in subfreezing winter in a bathing suit, do you look for what message Hashem was giving you when you susequently get a cold?

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Austin W. Fergusson
10 years 2 months ago

““Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 1:18-20)

Many are looking at the disaster and are trying to affix blame on some other human cause, some other human agency, some other human. Somehow, if we can do… Read more »

10 years 2 months ago

“Don’t forget that New Orleans is the city of Mardi Gras, too.”

Not just Mardi Gras. I learned today that “Southern Decadence,” a week-long gay festival second only to Mardi Gras, was slated to begin in NO on Sunday, Sept. 4th.

10 years 2 months ago

Mr. Beck:

Re. the underfunded levees. The most recent report from the Corps of Engineers stresses that the levees that failed were not those affected by the funding cuts. In fact, those levees were in fine shape. The problem was that they were designed for nothing more than a category 3 storm, and so collapsed under Katrina’s category 5 weight.

Austin W. Fergusson
10 years 2 months ago

“But if, despite this, you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me, I will act against you in wrathful hostility; I, for My part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. (Leviticus 26:27-28, NJPS)

If G-d has designed and made this world, then there is apparently some type of correspondence between how G-d judges the nations and how G-d judges the individual and family both spiritually and physically. Does smoking, or drinking and driving, result in innocent parts of our bodies suffering? Were some innocent in the families of Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab the Reubenite, when… Read more »

Tom Beck
10 years 2 months ago

I don’t know how many liberals you actually know, or how much serious liberal commentary you actually read. Most of the serious liberal commentary on New Orleans is focusing on the fact that the Bush Administration cut funding for the Army Corps of Engineer’s projects to strengthen the levees and that it had absolutely no plan for relief even though it knew well in advance how bad things might be (and might even have been worse).

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Tom Beck
10 years 2 months ago

“The left might say it’s because we unlawfully removed Saddam from his rightful position as beloved leader of his innocent country.”

No we wouldn’t. We’re glad Saddam is gone. We might possibly say it’s because we invaded to keep him from using WMD that President Bush knew he didn’t actually have, or because we invaded in spite of warnings that we had no plan for the occupation even though President Bush had been warned he needed one. We might also say it is because America lets millions of people live in poverty while cutting taxes for the wealthy. But most leftists… Read more »

Netanel Livni
10 years 2 months ago

I don’t understand. This was a national catastrophe so how is it not reasonable to look for a sin of the “America nation” as the cause for this punishment? Chazal do this all the time (Avot 5:7 for one example). No, we do not know Hashem’s ways and we cannot pretend to have some sort of divine calculator that can predict punishment. However, Chazal do often associate certain global punishments with certain widespread sins. Chazal say that the the Mabul (Noach’s flood) was decreed in Heaven once the people started engaging in widespread Chamas (Chamas… Read more »