Following the awful disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, an interesting story started spreading around the internet about a Jewish passenger who had booked his ticket through Dan’s Deals. The agent, being an Orthodox Jew, suggested that his customer take a flight that didn’t go on Shabbat. The customer eventually changed his mind, and thus did not end up on the doomed flight.
The story went viral: this man’s life was saved because he decided to keep Shabbat and not fly. Many online responses to these stories marvelled at the miracle, and prayed for the safety of the people on the flight, and some expressed everything from cynicism to disgust at this approach. I felt uncomfortable with the suggestion that God had saved this particular person because of a particular thing he did, because the awful inference is that He killed 239 others because they didn’t.
How are we to respond to such a thing?
A few years ago, I was talking to a friend about our family’s annual celebration of my father’s liberation from Buchenwald on 11 April 1945 (my friend’s father was also liberated then), and I casually mentioned that we thank God for saving my father. My friend pounced on the comment, asking me about the millions that God allowed to die. This in turn led to a debate event in the Melbourne CBD with the topic: “Did God save the Jews during the Holocaust?”
It’s the old question about the role God plays in the world, and in this particular case, just one word in the debate topic makes a huge difference – “the”. On a macro level, we can acknowledge that God saved “the Jews”: our entire people were threatened with annihilation, and we (as a people) survived. But when we drill down to the micro level and say that God saved an individual Jew, then we must also acknowledge that God allowed six million individual Jews to die.
Holocaust survivors are full of tales like that of the Dan’s Deal customer – the sliding-doors moments that, in hindsight, were the difference between life and death. What comes with acknowledging those moments is also survivor’s guilt: what (if anything) did they do to deserve to be saved when the person standing next to them did not. Thinking in these terms is challenging on many levels.
There is a spectrum of views within Jewish theology about the role God plays in the world and the meaning of Divine Providence. From the Baal Shem Tov, who espoused that even “the movement of a leaf in the wind” is individually directed by God (which raises questions about the principle of free choice), to Rambam and Ramban who teach that God created systems by which the world operates. The story of Pesach, when God skipped over the Jewish houses marked with blood on the doorpost, gives us some insight into the terrible disasters that happen. Rashi (Shmot 11:22) notes the indiscriminate nature of destructive forces when God releases them in the world.
But we are still no closer to an appropriate response. The answer, no matter the degree to which God supervises and controls the actions of the world, comes from Isaiah (55:8) “For my thoughts are not your thoughts”. God operates at a level we cannot understand.
So it is wrong to attribute — on a micro level — a direct causal relationship between our actions and those of God. Statements like “natural disaster X occurred in the US because of the government’s opposition to apartment building in Jeusalem” and “tragedies have happened in our community because we did not observe the laws of tznius” are other examples of the inappropriate assumption that we can know why God does what He does.
I am happy for the person who was saved, and if this miracle causes him (and others) to reflect on his life, and his Jewish observance, and to strive for a closer connection to Jewishness, then that’s a positive outcome. At the same time, I feel for the passengers of MH370 and their families. So far, the authorities and experts cannot explain what happened, so conjecture by laypeople, and certainly about God’s role is completely speculative.
And this year on the 11th of April, as in previous years, I will thank God for my father’s survival, and at the same time, mourn and reflect on the terrible loss to our family and so many others. The final word on this can only come from someone like Job (1:21): “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”.