Katrina and Other Tragedies – Two Responses You Can Live With

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And the words of the prophet they are written on the subway walls… – Paul Simon

So many of those seers came forth after Katrina, that the walls of the 34th St Station could have run out of room fairly quickly. Some of the reverse prognostications even came, to the embarrassment of some of us, from pretty well placed persons within the Torah community. (My favorite, however, comes from outside of it. It is the one that holds George Bush personally responsible, since he refused to sign on to Kyoto. That, of course, directly produced enough global warming to cause the current spate of tropical storms.)

Many of us skeptics suffered in silence, as we listened to a march of authorities tell us what everyone else was doing wrong. My son Peysi reminded me of two levels of irony in the rush to judgment.

The first concerned the suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv. Some holy figure told the world that the reason for the tragedy was undoubtedly Divine retribution for the Shabbos desecration of the patrons of that disco. A few months later, a bomber struck at the entrance to Emmanuel, a haredi town with no Shabbos desecration to speak of. A writer in Haaretz couldn’t resist the opportunity to announce that the tragedy certainly was Divine retribution for the sin of being haredi.

The more serious error in the spate of finger-pointing, observed my son, was that it run completely counter to the way Gedolim always reacted in the past, pointing the finger of guilt back at ourselves, rather than towards others. Our leaders used to offer no reason as to why the victims of cataclysmic events were swallowed up by them; they did, however, point out that if we were doing a better job of things, the world would be a more perfect place, and tragedies would not strike in the same way. Horrifying headlines became platforms upon which to deliver mussar talks that urged us to take stock of our own houses, rather than burn down those of others.

One such response has finally gelled within the last days. As best I can tell, the idea originated with Rabbi Yaakov Biron in Los Angeles, who noted the subtext of shul desecrations within the last weeks. We saw the front-page pictures of the retrieval of ruined Sifrei Torah from New Orleans, and the beautiful shul in Netzarim going up in smoke; last week a shul in Modiin was engulfed in flames, along with its Torah scrolls.

Our reaction to what could be a strong hint is that we ought to do something to strengthen the sanctity of our synagogues. He proposed to Rabbi Yaakov Krause, rav of Young Israel of Hancock Park, that one Shabbos we max out on the kedushah / holiness of the shul, using our time there for what it was designed – conversing with G-d, and nothing else. There would be an absolute ban on talking from the time we walk into shul, till we leave. (It is easier than most people think. We have little trouble keeping silent on Rosh Hashanah, from the beginning of the sounding of the shofar till the last of the hundred shofar sounds.) Rabbi Krause took the proposal to OU headquarters, and many OU synagogues embraced the planned Silent Shabbos, now scheduled for this week.

To me, this seems like as good a response as it gets. No one claims to know the cause or reason for these events with any certainty. Torah Jews, however, have always looked within tragedy for the subtle and not-so-subtle clues that might provide guidance for improvement. We do not fix the blame with others, but look for ways to change ourselves.

May this effort meet with much success!

A very different response was authored by the venerable Rav Moshe Grylack in a recent issue of Mishpacha. It seems to be the defintive piece on why the Monday morning quarterbacks are so out of synch with the authentic spirit of Torah Judaism. It speaks for itself, and is here reproduced.

The “prophets” have made their appearance once again. After every disaster that strikes our planet, there are those who volunteer to act as interpreters. Hurricane Katrina is no exception. Full of confidence, “our prophets” tell you exactly why HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose to strike this particular place at this particular time.

These self-appointed experts on G-d’s intentions have decided that there is a clear connection between the natural disaster in New Orlearns and that wrought by human hands in Gush Katif. Katrina, according to them, is a punishment for the sins of Sharon and his army.

Nor has this game of divination been confined to the Jewish nation. Many American evangelists who support Israel have also been taking part. They, too, see Katrina as a direct admonition to President Bush for having promoted the Gaza withdrawal. And let us not forget the Islamic “prophets,” who agree that the hurricane is a sign of Divine displeasure with George W. Bush, but for the opposite reason — because of his support for Israel. We can assume that we’ll soon be hearing gematrias on the subject, if they haven’t appeared yet.

When I ask one of these self-appointed seers, “What is the connection? Why should the impoverished people of New Orleans, who may never even have heard of the withdrawal from Gaza, have to suffer for it? Why would Hashem choose New Orleans and not Gaza City, for example, or Washington D.C.? If the disaster had struck in one of these locations, maybe even a doubter like me would have been convinced that there is some truth to your speculations. But why New Orleans?”

In reply, I receive a smug pronouncement: “Hashem’s ways are hidden.” And when, in response to this, I continue with my childish questions and say, “If Hashem’s ways are hidden, then how can you be so sure that the hurricane struck the southern United States because of the evacuation of settlements in southern Israel?” For my efforts, I am rewarded with a glassy-eyed gaze as if were an idiot. “Can’t you see that one thing happened immediately after the other?” he fires at me.

Then I try a bit of irony. “Well, maybe Katrina struck because of the arguments that have been taking place in Yeshivas Ponovezh in Bnei Brak, or perhaps because of the quarrel over the succession among the Bobover chassidim in New York? Or could it be because the chareidi parties in Israel are going their separate ways once again and probably won’t run on the same ticket in the next elections? Or here’s another good possibility: a sagacious Sephardi of my acquaintance told me that all the recent upheavals in the world came about because of the tears of the Sephardic girls who weren’t accepted in the Bais Yaakov schools. Their tears, he said, are enough to fill an ocean, so is it any wonder that the seas are overflowing and flooding the land?”

My irony is received with a humorless reply: “Yes, but what does all that have to do with Katrina?” Katrina, it seems, belongs to Gush Katif, not to Ponovezh. Everyone wants to explain HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s conduct in terms of his own personal concerns. Whatever makes him angry is projected onto the latest disaster, and let the poor, downtrodden people of Louisiana pay for it.

Well, in our beis medrash we learned differently.

It wasn’t long ago that parts of southern Asia were devastated by the tsunami, and then, too, there arose “prophets” in Israel who claimed that it had all come about because of Sharon’s evil intentions to detach Gush Katif from Eretz Yisrael, for after all, everything that happens in the world is for the sake of the Jewish nation. We dealt with that subject in this column at that time, and because of the importance of keeping our Jewish outlook clear and undistorted, we are prompted to repeat some of the points we made then.

A fundamental principle in our faith is that events do not occur at random. Both individuals and nations are subject to reward and punishment. When a Jew sees a disastrous event, he can be sure that some basic ethical standard has been violated in the world, and that the upheaval is a consequence of the violation. In order to comprehend in depth Hashem’s management of the world, a Jew turns to the holy seforim, in this case particularly to the Ramchal’s works, Daas Tvunos and Derech Hashem. But this advice is given with one reservation: no human being is capable of grasping the details of Heavenly calculations; no one can know why specifically the population of the Gulf coast was made to bear the brunt of the current disaster at the cost of so many lives and homes. For as the Ramchal explains in Derech Hashem, the infinitely complex weighing of all human deeds and the determination of the fate of all Hashem’s creatures, all of which is calculated to bring the world towards its ultimate rectification, cannot be grasped by the human mind as long as it is bound to a physical body.

Furthermore, as the Chazon Ish writes, a human being cannot even understand the events that happen to him as an individual. When suffering comes upon a person and he attempts to examine his misfortune in terms of Heavenly recompense, which is known to come middah k’neged middah, measure for measure, it is still beyond his power to pinpoint exactly what caused his troubles.

This was the answer the Chazon Ish gave to the Jew from Bnei Brak who came to ask him, “What is Hashem trying to tell me?” after a narrow escape from death by electrocution. The Chazon Ish told the man that there is no way of knowing, and that excessive speculation on the matter could cause him to stray from the correct path in his avodas Hashem, because he would be liable to be guided by his own biases rather than by the truth. “Do nothing,” the Chazon Ish told him. “Do nothing beyond strengthening your everyday service of Hashem through Torah and yiras Shamayim.”
If an individual is not even capable of plumbing the depths of his own heart and determining where he has gone wrong, then surely none of us can pretend to hold the keys to Hashem’s Divine reckoning of reward and punishment on the cosmic scale.

An obvious question arises here, and indeed someone once posed it to the Chazon Ish: Does it not say in maseches Brachos, “If a man sees that suffering comes upon him, he should examine his deeds”? The Chazon Ish gave an astonishing answer: That applied only to the era of the Gemara. The chachamim/ sages of those times had enough truth in their hearts to sift through their deeds objectively, without being turned astray by their biases. But for us, the ways of Hashgachah / Providence are hidden from man.

To sum up the Chazon Ish’s position on the matter at hand, it takes a navi emes, a true prophet, to comprehend the secrets of human history, to perceive the deep, intricate connections between cause and effect in our world.

And today, with all due respect to those who would like to indulge in divination, we have no prophets.blockquote>

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2 Responses

  1. Micha says:

    While the Chazon Ish’s advice makes sense, I wonder what he would have answered had the man asked, “How can I channel the powerful feelings caused by this narrow escape into better avodas Hashem?” There, more specific advice about mitzvos or prohibitions related to the event would have value.

  2. Moshe Schorr says:

    Thank you so much. I am _thrilled_ to hear about Silent Shabbos. May it succeed and
    become a permanent fixture of our prayers (As it says in the Shulchan Aruch )

    I have begun reciting the Mi Sheberach of the Tosfes Yom Tov, blessing all those
    who refrain from speaking during davening. But I still say it quietly to avoid
    antagonizing the “talkers”

    Shana Tova to all

    Moshe Schorr