Nature, God And Us

I am writing this the morning after the day before, not quite twenty-four hours since the horrific tornado in Moore, Oklahoma essentially destroyed the entire town, taking many innocent lives with it.

One cannot help but be filled with an overpowering sense of déjà vu. We have all been here before, this year, not that long ago. Super Storm Sandy wreaked havoc with so much of our area, leaving death and destruction in its path. We are still recovering. Epic drought in the Midwest, wildfires in California, snow and ice flowing in off a lake in Minnesota and subverting the houses in its way, and on and on… it seems as if nature is in full revolt. Once upon a time, storms like Sandy, or the tornado in Oklahoma, would have been considered “the storm of the century.” Now climatologists are telling us that we might just be encountering the “new normal.” Weather patterns will be more severe, and extraordinary events more… ordinary.

Skeptics will persist in doubting it, or at least the severity of it, but it seems clear to these eyes that we are in the midst of some kind of meteorological paradigm shift. A great many scientists see global warming as the culprit, and while I am in no position to evaluate the scientific evidence, I am certainly inclined to believe them. There are far too many extraordinary events taking place, one right after the other, to ascribe all of this mayhem to sheer serendipity.

But again–I am a rabbi, not a scientist. And I am always interested in exploring how our tradition has long understood God’s will as being manifest in nature and history. I think it is fair to say– as I often have– that thousands of years ago, the rabbis who fashioned both the law and the lore of Judaism had no regard whatsoever for the idea of randomness. Nothing happened without a reason. They had a set series of associations to match the most undesirable circumstances with particular sins. Three different sins might cause a woman to die in childbirth. Leprosy results from lashon harah, the sin of slanderous gossip. Plagues come to the world because of seven different sins. They had it all figured out– or so they thought.

Similarly, the ancients understood history to unfold as it did because of the behavior of the Israelites. The Babylonians who sacked Jerusalem and sent us into exile were vehicles for God’s wrath: U’mipnei hata’einu galinu mei’artzeinu…Because of our sins, we were exiled from our land. So were the Romans. Taking this line of thinking to its most extreme (and, to my mind, indefensible) position, even the Shoah was been referred to by some contemporary rabbinic leaders as divine punishment for the Haskalah, and the secularization of European Jewry. According to this way of thinking, nature and history are no more and no less than instruments for the realization of God’s greater plans for Israel, and for humanity.

I can’t allow myself to think this way, essentially because I wouldn’t want to believe in a God whose will becomes manifest as much through agony and suffering as through blessing. My sense is that for the ancient rabbis, as for many contemporary people Jewish and other, there was/is a certain comfort to be found in ascribing causes to those things that are most incomprehensible to us. People like to believe that everything happens for a reason, particularly in cases of tragic death. Having a reason for what happened can help to create a framework within which to find solace… at least for some.

But at the same time, that kind of thinking also opens to door to simplistic, fundamentalist explanations for issues and questions that are hopelessly complex, or simply without a reason at all. I have watched many people suffer from cancer and other diseases over the years of my rabbinate, but I have no sense at all of why it is that one people who smoked a few packs a day doesn’t get lung cancer, and another who never smoked does. Find me a rabbi who claims to know or understand why a child suffers from life-threatening illness, and I’ll show you a rabbi from whom I could never learn Torah.

Mystery is as much a part of God’s world as science is, and the truly spiritual person has to come to terms with that. The absence of an explanation is not at all the same as the absence of God. It is simply a statement of humility and submission in which one has no alternative but to admit that there are many things in life and death that are unfathomable to us. And still, we are called on to believe. That, I think, is a good working definition of faith…

What happened in Moore, Oklahoma, is not a manifestation of “God’s will” in an active or aggressive way. It is, once could say, a manifestation of nature’s will, of the natural order that is a part of God’s world. Nature operates according to its own laws. Given the right set of meteorological circumstances, a funnel cloud will form, and great destruction of property and life is possible. It is not God saying “Let there be a tornado.” It is nature allowing for its laws to operate unfettered, as they will.

As to whether or not human abuse of our environment is to blame for nature’s fury being so manifest in so many different ways this year, that is an important and relevant discussion– for a different article. But if that is indeed the case, that global warming is responsible for what we are experiencing then we would surely owe both God and nature one huge apology for creating such mayhem, not to mention the innocent people who have been the victims of it.

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