Japan’s Agony: Natural Disaster Through a Religious Lens

After one or two probing and thoughtful questions from my Hebrew High School students this week about the unfolding disaster in Japan, I decided to shelve my lesson plan and just talk with them about what they were feeling. They were, like we all are, horrified by the images they were seeing, and struggling to frame this great tragedy in some way that was manageable for them.

One of the students recounted to me with dismay that she had heard a fundamentalist Christian minister on TV attribute the death and destruction in Japan to certain moral shortcomings in Japanese society. The implication of her comment was an unspoken “thank God we Jews don’t do things like that.”

Sadly, I had to inform her that that’s not entirely true. I can remember well when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe attributed extensive losses among Israel’s soldiers during the first Lebanon War to the failure of most Israelis to check the parchments in their mezuzahs. Really.

And more recently, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel insinuated that the Shoah itself was God’s retribution for the Haskalah, the movement that brought Jews into the more secular, intellectual mainstream of their European countries…

Though I find both of these notions to be morally indefensible, gratuitously cruel, and almost unbelievably foolish, I am obliged to admit that, from a religious perspective, they fall into one of two possible theological responses to both positive and negative real-time events in our world.

For more than two thousand years, both the Hebrew Bible and subsequent rabbinic liturgical writing has imprinted on the Jewish consciousness that the things that happen to us in this world are to be understood as signs of divine favor or anger. We say it twice a day in the second paragraph of the Sh’ma.

If you follow the commandments and are true to the covenant, then blessings will inevitably follow, the rain will fall in its time, the harvest will be rich, and so on. And, conversely, if we fail to follow the commandments and are unfaithful to the covenant, our lives can become, essentially, a living hell. It is stated in greater detail elsewhere in Deuteronomy, but the Sh’ma conveys the essence of the idea. And, in our holiday liturgy, we recite the phrase U’mipnei Chata’einu Galinu Mei’artzeinu; it is because of our sins that we were exiled from our land.

It is certainly true that our ancient, classical texts saw the hand of God , as it were, acting in human history in the most cause-and-effect kind of way. The good are rewarded, the bad are punished, and that’s the way the world works. Why is God so angry at us, I’ve heard said many times this week…

There are, however, other ways to frame what I call “cosmic chaos” without depicting God as a master Puppeteer who is, both literally and figuratively, pulling strings to throw our lives into disorder. Were this not the case, I doubt strongly that the Book of Job would ever have been selected by the ancient rabbis to be included in the biblical canon.

After all, what is Job but the lament of a man whose whole world is subverted for what he is sure is no reason? His friends try to convince him otherwise- “you must have done something, they say, to merit this awful punishment- but he knows he is blameless, and so do we. Job’s cry is an early attack on cosmic unfairness.

And therein can we find the other answer to the timeless problem of reward, punishment, and cosmic unfairness. Life is not always fair or good, even for the most righteous. Whether or not one wants to indict God for that is a private decision. But really- it’s not about God, per se; it’s about nature.

One of God’s greatest gifts to humanity is the orderly functioning of the natural world. Think of how much we take for granted on a daily bases- that our hearts will beat regularly, that the scratch that we have on an arm or leg will not allow in some aggressive bacteria that will make us deathly ill, that our parents and children will be safe from harm, that we will not be in the wrong place at the wrong time… we depend on all this. If we didn’t- or couldn’t- we would never get out of bed in the morning.

Nature is fundamentally an orderly system, regular, dependable and largely benevolent. Like the pulse of human being, it beats according to its predetermined rhythms, and we are the beneficiaries of its constancy.

But like a human being, nature also- to continue the metaphor- occasionally suffers from an arrhythmia, an irregularity in its pulse. And when nature becomes arrhythmic, chaos inevitably follows, and the damage, as we have seen this past week, can be devastating.

In the case of an earthquake or tsunami, we understand what geological forces are at work to cause the arrhythmia, and why it happens. But sometimes we simply don’t understand, and never will.

Why does a person in seemingly perfect health die of a massive heart attack? Why does a pregnancy that was normal and perfect until the very end sometimes end in a stillbirth? How can it be that tens of thousands of people who were just going about their daily business a week ago get swept away by a massive wall of water?

The answer is- sometimes it just happens. The potential for chaos is as much built into the natural system as orderliness is. Why do bad things- terrible things- happen sometimes? The frustrating answer is… because. They just do.

All of us would like to imagine God as a superhero who can save us from all disaster, and we actually pray for God to do just that every evening. Cause us, God, to lie down in peace, and to awaken to life. That’s not a given, as we can find out all too painfully. We desperately want to be able to believe that those whom we love- as well as we ourselves- will be spared the outrageous possibilities of cosmic chaos. But sometimes we aren’t. And when that happens, it shakes us to the core, and reminds us of just how fragile all that we hold dear really is… an authentically religious realization.

What I told my students- and what I tell myself- is that there is no escaping the sense of horror that inevitably accompanies an episode of cosmic chaos like the kind that Japan is experiencing. It is, when all is said and done, terrifying, and it cannot be expected to be otherwise.

But at times such as these, it is particularly important- as a religious person- to allow ourselves to be reminded regularly, daily, of the fundamental orderliness of nature that makes our lives not only bearable, but pleasurable as well. We hold on to those we love, maybe a little more tightly than usual, and thank God for the routine and myriad miracles that keep us alive and healthy. Most of all- we pay homage to the most fundamental religious impulse of all. We say thank you for what we have, and never- ever- take it for granted. And that’s where we might find strength, and resolve, to withstand the raging storms all around us.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.