It’s more than half a year until Tax Day, but God’s accountants already are busy at work.
On Saturday, September 3, 2016, the launch of the Amos 6, a $200 million Israeli satellite, failed. Rather than the anticipated heavenly flight, a massive fireball engulfed the satellite. Its owners and their experts, as well as the Florida launch pad owners and experts, still are uncertain about the cause of this disaster.
However, the experts at United Torah Judaism, a charedi political party that is a member of Israel’s governing coalition, immediately knew the answer, claiming that the fiery destruction resulted from the date of the launch. The explosion was punishment for chilul Shabbat. And the rabbinical head of the Tunisian Jewish community in Israel, who earlier had blamed the gay pride parade in Jerusalem for the murders of R. Eitam and Naama Henkin hy”d, doubled down by blaming not only the Amos 6 explosion but also the subsequent collapse of a Tel Aviv parking garage, which killed six people, on chilul Shabbat.
This is not the first time that these celestial savants have been active. The reason for the tragic collapse of a floor at an Israeli event space, which killed many people and injured many others? Mixed dancing at that space. An increase in the number of cancer deaths in a community? Women’s immodest dress. Devastation to New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina? Insufficient U.S. support of Israel.
Of course, other religions also have their all-knowing seers. Jerry Falwell said that abortionists, feminists, gays, and the ACLU helped the tragedy of 9/11 happen. Pat Robertson said that the 2010 Haitian earthquake, which killed more than 300,000, was a result of a pact Haitians made with the devil. Others blamed the Ebola epidemic on same-sex marriage and somehow knew that the AIDS plague and the Orlando massacre were heavenly punishment of gays.
But, some argue, isn’t this type of understanding valid Jewish theology? Don’t we believe in sin and Divine punishment? Doesn’t our yom tov Musaf Amidah begin with mipnei chata’einu galinu me’artzeinu — because of our sins we were exiled from our land?
The answer to the last question is, of course, yes, it does contain that language. However, it’s here that the pedantic grammarian in me surfaces and insists that pronouns are important. “Our” sins, not “their” sins. Our failings, not those of others. What should initially and primarily be important and relevant to us in these situations is what we did wrong, not how others observe Shabbat, dance, dress, love, or do a myriad of other activities that some believe are improper. Our sins. True moral leaders first take responsibility before they assign blame; when they point one finger of censure outward, three fingers point inward.
And yes, it’s also true that the rabbis seem to assign blame to others with respect to the destruction of the Second Temple and the resulting exile when they say that it was caused, among other sins, by sinat chinam, baseless hatred (Yoma, 9a-b). Indeed, in Gittin, (55b) they personalize sinat chinam with the tale of a party’s host mistreating Bar Kamtza, an erroneously invited guest, and explain how it led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
But what I realized for the first time this Tisha B’Av was that in addition to the host’s shameful behavior, an equally integral and essential part of this story was the timorous refusal of the rabbis attending the party to stand up to the host’s actions, and later, the refusal of other rabbis to stand up to R. Zechariah ben Abkulas’ legalistic and short-sighted rulings. In other words, even in assigning a cause to the First Century destruction, the rabbis made sure to accept some responsibility; as true moral leaders they pointed their fingers at themselves too, making the concept of chata’einu, our sins, very real and personal.
Moreover, sinat chinam is not the only sin linked to exile in our tradition. In the Mishna (Avot, 5:9), the rabbis teach that exile is the consequence of “idol-worship, prohibited sexual relations, bloodshed and neglect of the agricultural sabbatical year.” And in the Tosefta at the end of Menachot, the destruction of the Second Temple is ascribed to “loving money and hating one’s neighbor.” So even in terms of national tragedy where we believe that sins result in punishment, the rabbis, by giving numerous reasons, indicate that it is way beyond anyone’s pay grade to match up any one specific sin with a specific punishment.
I would suggest going a step further. Perhaps the rabbis, in listing this plethora of sins as causes of exile using the language of their times, were acting in a manner similar to the description by the Rav, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, of the proper Jewish reaction to suffering.
In his magnificent and inspiring essay, “Kol Dodi Dofek: It is the Voice of my Beloved that Knocketh” (trans. Lawrence Kaplan), the Rav deals in part with this issue by noting that asking “why” following tragedy is a “question that has no answer. It is insoluble.” He further explains that “we do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated.”
So rather than assigning blame, the rabbis may have been struggling to react to the tragedy of destruction and exile by focusing on a number of sins of which many in their community, including themselves as demonstrated by the Bar Kamtza story, were guilty. Their underlying message: It’s not truly an issue of cause and effect. What’s important when tragedy strikes is that all concentrate on specific areas in which to improve going forward.
This message certainly is timely, with the Days of Awe looming before us. Once again, I turn, in part, to the words of the Rav. We are now in a time of “rigorous self-examination and self-evaluation, untainted by the slightest hint of partiality and self-indulgence”; a time to understand and take to heart that suffering and tragedy are wake-up calls for the future and not explanations of the past; a time to “contemplate our past and envisage our future with complete and unwavering honesty.” It’s a time focus on ways in which we can and should act that will help us become better, kinder, more decent, observant, and loving people.