Katrina, Gush Katif and Explaining God

First, I heard that there was a Muslim cleric who declared that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was punishment for America's support of Israel. Then there was the Christian minister who pronounced that this hurricane was a display of God's wrath in response to the liberal support of gay rights; a gay festival actually planned for New Orleans for early September was deemed to further bolster this claim. Of course, there was the other Christian minister who maintained that it was punishment for the legalization of abortion in the United States.

Foolishness, all foolishness; we all know that only rabbis are able to understand the real reason for such destruction -- and how fortunate we are that, indeed, some rabbis have shared their unique knowledge of the reason(s) for this tragedy. One compared New Orleans to Sodom explaining that this city of modern times was destroyed for its sinfulness, just like the ancient Biblical city. And then there were those rabbis who explained that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for America's pressure on Israel to leave Gaza and in retribution for the pain caused the residents of Gush Katif. But then, why, in the first place, did the residents of Gush Katif experience suffering and continue to suffer? To combine the thoughts of these various rabbis, we would find that the residents of Gush Katif are being punished for the sins of New Orleans ! After all, many of the Gush Katif residents came from America, the country of this sinful city (perhaps some even came from New Orleans or, at least, visited it).

Whenever disaster or tragedy strikes, there are those who
question: 'Where is God?' And then, there are those who claim to have all the answers and know exactly 'where God is.' God is deemed to communicate through His actions -- both positive and negative -- but, have you ever noticed that this communication always seems to somehow fall on deaf ears? The ones who need to hear the communication -- for example, the sinners who are supposed to learn the evil of their ways from the destruction of Katrina -- never seem to get the message. And the ones who do understand the message are the ones who already seem to know the truth, and did not need this communication in the first place.

Did this Christian minister need God to communicate to him, through the devastation of Katrina, the sinfulness of homosexuality? Of course not; he already knew about this sinfulness. Presumably, God must have been attempting to communicate this truth to the liberal others who think a gay lifestyle is a fine alternative. Yet, those who needed to hear the message, the liberal supporters of gay rights, did not get it; these individuals seem to have some difficulty making this connection. Similarly, the rabbis who felt the pain of Gush Katif did not need God to tell them, through this hurricane, of the grave transgression of the Israeli government. Yet somehow this government still fails to learn this 'truth' when the prophetic message from Katrina is so 'clear'. But who is willing to argue that God is not clear in His communications?

The above attempt at sarcasm is not necessarily meant to challenge the underlying principles of those making these assertions about the lesson(s) of Katrina. Obviously, I disagree with the view of the Muslim cleric who believes it wrong to support Israel; I obviously believe it is right to support Israel. While I may disagree with the attitude and tone of the Christian minister's view on homosexuality, I can't disagree with the basic message; the Torah, itself, declares the act of homosexual intercourse to be a violation. The tragedy that occurred in Gush Katif is most complex, but all (or, at least, most) agree -- regardless of political or religious perspective -- that the departure from Gaza was a sad day. It is how individuals are willing to use tragedy and events such as Katrina to bolster their viewpoints that incites me. The challenge of understanding God's ways has bothered the greatest of individuals, including Moshe Rabbeinu (see T.B. Berachot 7a) since the dawn of time. Yet these modern day "seers" are able to declare unequivocally God's message -- and the message is always in support of their views and never in contradiction with them. If tragedy occurs to someone who opposes their view, it is a punishment for having this opposing, sinful view. If tragedy occurs to someone who shares their view, it is a kapara, an atonement for, still, the sins of the other. Never does one of these "seers" ever emerge to say he/she was wrong, that the tragedy presented a message that he or she must change.

The very attempt to find a lesson in tragedy and devastation is, in itself, problematic. To attempt to give any Divine reason for the pain that Katrina caused -- including the suffering of children -- is, in fact, almost blasphemous. Any reason seems to define sensibility and seems to define God in an ungodly manner. This is ultimately what bothered Moshe Rabbeinu. The question of tzaddik v'ra lo, the righteous individual who experiences intense misfortune, can always be answered with the simple response that the individual must not be righteous enough in the eyes of God. The problem is that we do not see the connection; to us the pain is inappropriate for the transgression, for almost any transgression. How can one justify, or even attempt to justify, the catastrophe of Katrina or the Tsunami with reasons? All reasons fall pale in the face of this pain to so many -- so many innocent. This is why people ask 'Where is God.' The only possible answer of individuals of faith is that God's ways are beyond us. Our calling must be to simply
respond to the need (-- and I encourage all to give towards this important cause of helping those harmed by Katrina, just as we must help those dislocated from Gaza whose needs were insufficiently addressed).

Still, in spite of the mystery of God's involvement in this world, we are taught that we are to attempt to find meaning in tragedy and to search for some lesson(s). It is this directive that actually is used by these "seers" to defend their pronouncements. Yet, the Torah literature on the subject of how we are to respond to tragedy declares that painful events are to promote introspection and cause us to consider and re-consider our actions and our thoughts. In considering a lesson from tragedy, our goal is not to find the reason; only God can know this mystery. The call is to look at ourselves; for each individual to look for weakness within.. As evidenced by some of the punditry after the tragedy of Katrina, this sadly is not what occurs. Rather than causing one to re-consider and even change one's views, events such as Katrina are interpreted, by variant "seers", in a manner that simply supports their existing positions. In the wake of tragedy, they use this devastation to promote their cause, standing on high, apart from the suffering of other members of humanity, to declare, without humility and only with pride, that they have a direct link with the Divine, that they are above reproach and that God is declaring through this horror that they are right. This is not the meaning of the directive to search into ourselves whenever we confront pain. The message of this directive is that we are not God, we are not perfect and that we can and must learn. Sadly these "seers" do not get this message. (For a further discussion on how we are to view ourselves in the face of tragedy, see Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Viewing Oneself, Introspection 5763-2.)

This is not a call for individuals to constantly change their opinions. Of course, there are times to be adamant. Yet we must be careful how we are adamant and how we defend our uncompromising views. We must always be careful to place our values and positions within the greater context of Torah and God. To not be open to change is to place oneself beyond the possibility of reproach from Above. To define events simply in support of one's view -- even as others, within the world of Torah, attest to other views -- even as other interpretations are available -- is to impose one's views upon God. We are to be students of the moral lessons of the Almighty. We must always be wary of the possibility that we are attempting to impose our morality upon others -- effectively attempting to do so by declaring it to be God's teachings. (It is, in fact, the Torah concept of tolerance to opposing opinions as defined in the term eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim chayim, "these and those are the words of the living God" [T.B. Eruvin 13b], that ensures a proper view of ourselves. See, further, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Tolerance, Introspection 5760-3.) There is a call for humility in the face of tragedy. There is a call to remind us that God is beyond us and that we are not God. There is a call to assist humanity; there is a call to be human.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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Links to charity sites for victims of Hurricane Katrina:
United Jewish Communities
OU/RCA/YU Joint Fund to Help Communities Affected by Katrina
Chabad New Orleans
FEMA, with links to other organizations
Links to charity sites for former residents of Gaza:
OU fund to help former residents of Gaza
Ezras Torah
Detailed information on Hurricane Katrina
Flooded Areas (map)