The Earth Trembles

To any early 20th century Polish Jew, Japan could as well have been Neptune.

The distance between the shtetl and the Far East was measurable not merely in physical miles but in cultural and religious distance no less. Yet when, on September 1, 1923, a powerful earthquake hit Japan’s Kanto plain, laying waste to Tokyo, Yokohama and surrounding cities, killing well over 100,000 people, news of the disaster reached even the Polish town of Radin. That was the home of the “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the sainted Jewish scholar renowned around the world even then for his scholarship, honesty and modest life.

Informed of the mass deaths in Japan, the 85-year-old rabbinic leader was visibly shaken, immediately undertook to fast and insisted that the news should spur all Jews to repentance.

Yes, Jews to repentance. Jewish religious sources maintain that catastrophes, even when they do not directly affect Jews, are nevertheless messages for them, wake-up calls to change for the better. Insurers call such occurrences “Acts of G-d.” For Jews, the phrase is apt, and every such lamentable event demands a personal response.

It is, to be sure, a very particularist idea, placing Jews at the … Read More >>