The existence of natural disasters is the greatest challenge to monotheistic faith. Human-created atrocities — even those of almost unimaginable scale — can be understood if not fully explained as an unavoidable adjunct of human free will. If human beings are to possess the capacity to do great good, they must also have the capacity to do great evil.
But when we face a catastrophic event that does not appear to bear human fingerprints, we cannot fall back on such an excuse. Such events force us to face squarely the central challenge to monotheism: how to reconcile a just and all-powerful God with the self-evident injustice that is an unmistakable part of the world around us.
Hurricane Harvey, (subsequently downgraded to a tropical storm, but with little loss of destructive power), which devastated coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana last week, was such an event. The pictures and videos out of Houston and its environs, among other places, were heartbreaking. Streets on which cars easily drove only a couple of weeks ago were turned into lakes passable only by boat. Many residents had to be rescued by boat or helicopter from the roofs of their homes, the only parts not under water. Thousands were homeless, and for many the likely interval before they will be able to return to their homes will be measured in months.
Raw numbers alone cannot capture the enormity of the storm. One news report said that more than fifteen trillion gallons of water fell after the hurricane made landfall, but I really can’t imagine what such a quantity would look like. Some reports have claimed that this hurricane may have been the biggest one (measured by water volume) to hit the continental United States since they began keeping records. No one can be sure at this point how much damage the storm did in total, but it is sure to be in the tens of billions of dollars.
The closest we can come to a bright side is that, as I write these words, there have been only 28 confirmed fatalities resulting from the storm. Every human life is precious, of course, and twenty-eight deaths is hardly insignificant, but in view of the magnitude of the devastation, we would have anticipated a far higher casualty count. The numbers are expected to rise and will probably be higher by the time you read this post.– but the fact that they were not far higher is a tribute to the emergency services personnel and to the people of Texas and Louisiana who reached out to help their neighbors, thus saving many lives.
Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey sometimes bring out the best in people, but that’s not a sufficient response to the challenge posed by the destruction they cause. The dead, the injured, the homeless — many of them children who could not possibly have done anything to deserve such suffering — are a mystery beyond human understanding. Ours is not the first generation to struggle with this challenge, and Jewish tradition is rich in spiritual resources to help us in that struggle. Some of those resources, like the Biblical book of Iyov (Job), are obviously intended for that purpose, but there are other places, some perhaps unexpected, that can also be helpful.
Psalm 27, which we recite twice daily during this month of Elul and the ensuing High Holiday season, is one example. Its first six verses express unalloyed confidence in the efficacy of God’s protection:
He will shelter me in His pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock. Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord. (Psalms 27:5-6, JPS translation).
Suddenly, with verse 7, the tone of the psalm changes radically. Instead of a song of triumphal confidence,. the Psalmist turns it into a plaintive acknowledgement of his utter dependence on God for his survival:
Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;; You have ever been my help. Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God my deliverer.(27:9).
He tries to regain his confidence:
Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living …(27:13).
Here, the Psalmist stops short. He knows that he has no assurance that he will see God’s goodness while still in the land of the living. He completes the thought in the only way he can, the only way any of us can:
Look to the Lord; be strong ands of good courage! O look to the Lord! (27:14)
It hardly seems adequate, yet ultimately it’s the best we can do. The central message of he Book of Job, too often ignored, is that God’s will is beyond human understanding. We cannot see the world from God’s vantage point and we thus cannot hope to comprehend why He sometimes allows natural phenomena to create such devastation. All we can do is to reach out to the victims to the best of our abilities and to look to God for the rest.