2. On Appropriate Religious Responses to Hurricane Sandy

This post is based on a session with Rav Lichtenstein held on Friday of Parshat Vayera (17 Marcheshvan 5773, November 2, 2012), at the end of the week in which Hurricane Sandy took place.  While original formulations were generally maintained, I tried to include translations of some phrases in endnotes, and a few in the text, as well as providing many of the sources in English, to enable those whose Hebrew is more limited to follow the basic gist.  The text was not reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.

-Dov Karoll

Question: Just a few centuries ago, a cataclysmic event like Hurricane Sandy would have been viewed as the direct hand of God in nature.  Contemporary Jews seem less inclined to adopt such a view.  Could the Rosh Yeshiva relate to appropriate religious reactions to Sandy in particular, and to the changed perspective of modern Jews in general?

The response to this question is partly a more specific one, relating to either the specific event of this particular storm, or, in a more generic sense, natural disasters, which are here described as cataclysmic, and indeed not only that but catastrophic.  Consequently, to a great extent, one’s response to this kind of an event is a function of one’s general view: a) of the interaction between מלכותא דשמיא[i] and מלכותא דארעא [ii] – of natural events within a supernatural context, and: b) one’s right, and, some would say, one’s duty, to reflect upon the events themselves, to try to gauge and to delineate the dimensions, the roots, of events of this kind.  That could take a number of forms.

Some people, who are not to be counted amongst the believing modern Jew, but to deal with humanity in general, find the events so terrifying that they find it, for themselves personally, virtually impossible to digest the enormity of the events, so that it becomes, to them, beyond comprehension, and in the extreme case, it results in people who lose their religious faith in general, whether Jews or gentiles.

Here, for Sandy, I imagine that this response has been more limited, because while it’s a storm with enormous force, it is one that, at the human plane, has taken relatively few lives.  I say relatively, because obviously we can’t speak lightly of the life of one person or 100 people, but when you look at historical events which had that effect – Voltaire lost his religious faith in the terrible earthquake in Lisbon in the middle of the 18th Century, and there, thousands perished; looking back to the tsunami of recent memory, that happened likewise, and people responded likewise.  That is the kind of response which, to a certain extent, we can understand, and, if we are very tolerant and very liberal, even sympathize with, and try to avoid being judgmental with regard to people who are making that response.  But it is a response – I don’t know how widespread it is, but it certainly exists.

To move from that to responses which are within the purviews and within the parameters of religious faith: here, you could move to the extreme, from the losses of one’s faith which I mentioned earlier, to the various poles of response which entail, not the rejection or denial, whether blasphemy or not, but, to the contrary, to move to responses which are viewed as a manifestation of the divine, breaking through, as it were, the crust which, imaginatively, encompasses the human orbit, of the natural world, and to see this, in a most fiery way, as an expression of divine anger, and the manifestation of one’s view of the רבונו של עולם,[iii] particularly in view of that aspect of מלכות שמיםi which is not, of the י”ג מידות,[iv] ק-ל רחום וחנון,[v] but rather that which many נביאים [vi] saw in terms of their perception, their vision. ישעיהו and יחזקאל [vii] both were privileged to be able to see מלכות שמים,i but one saw the beneficence of קדוש, קדוש קדוש [viii] while one saw הקרח הנורא.[ix]  But people who have no limitations in any way of making statements affirming what they presume to know about the ways of the רבונו של עולם,iii and who say, not as ישעיהו did, נסתרה דרכי מה’ (40:27) but לא נסתרה דרך ה’ ממני, who audaciously ascribe a cause and effect relationship to a tragedy which befalls mankind, and, on the other hand, is an expression of a message being addressed to us by the רבונו של עולם.iii

Some people will not speak in terms of an actual message which sounds very direct, and, from a certain point of view, is not an expression regarding anger but, on the contrary, of divine beneficence, that the רבונו של עולםiii is taking us under His wing and relating to us.  The worst possible thing that can happen to an individual or to humanity as a whole is that the רבונו של עולםiii should simply leave us all to our devices – and, from a certain point of view, even if that does not occur and we are collecting the victims – being a victim is better than being ignored completely.  Rav Nachman says in the gemara in Sanhedrin (105a) – כל כי האי ריתחא לירתח רחמנא עלן – may the רבונו של עולםiii take such drastic steps as He sees fit, ולפרוקינן – but keep us in mind and redeem us.

That there have been people who were entitled to speak in that vein, I think, goes without question, within the parameters of our אמונה.[x]  We believe that there are certain individuals – נביאיםvi as a category – who have been blessed – sometimes they are not blessed they are tortured – but, in any event, have some kind of mystical contact with the רבונו של עולםiii through נבואה.[xi]  In תנ”ך we have many different “faces,” so to speak, of the רבונו של עולםiii – המשילוך ברוב חזיונות, הנך אחד בכל דמיונות – and the same themes that you have in שיר הכבוד, Chazal speak of the רבונו של עולם’s different faces: one is in מתן תורה, where it is כזקן יושב בישיבה, קריעת ים סוף, there it is כגבור ואיש מלחמה, ה’ איש מלחמה ה’ שמו.[xii]  But that there is a “face” which, in terms of our immediate response, seems to be assuming that the רבונו של עולםiii is pulling out all the plugs, an expression of His response to, one form or another of action which is unbearable, then one can say: this is the רבונו של עולם’s response because we are sinning this way or that way.  מפני חטאנו[xiii] – transmitted at the national, super-national, not simply at the personal, vein.

It’s a very difficult response to digest, but some people glory in it; it gives them an opportunity to reflect upon their own virtue, as opposed to the infamy which they see in those around them in other communities, in other people.  And apart from asserting their own virtue, it gives them an opportunity to serve as a shofar of the רבונו של עולםiii – כשופר הרם קולך[xiv] – now that is very flattering to many [about themselves].

But whether it’s flattering or not is not the only issue here.  Let’s assume you are dealing with people who are not flattered but are pained – the other question is: does one have either a right or a duty to speak that language?  Here there certainly are differences between a more modern temperament, and the earlier – some would say more primitive, others would use alternative terms – the older forms of response and relation – both in terms of how one feels himself and in terms of what he communicates to others, in the broad community within which he finds himself.

As you probably know, I come from a school of thought which reacts very strongly against statements, assertions, defamations, made by people who claim to have, or who speak as if they think they have, some direct hotline to the רבונו של עולם,iii so that they are able to contemplate events, and interpret the events in accordance with their philosophic orientation, their spiritual stance, and say: ah hah, I told you so.

I take my tact from a different world, particularly the gemara in Sanhedrin (105b) – the gemara says with regard to Bilam – יודע דעת עליון [xv] is the way he described himself, and Chazal comment: יודע דעת עליון? השתא דעת בהמתו לא הוה ידע, דעת עליון הוה ידע?  The message the אתון (donkey) communicated to him, that he couldn’t understand; the will of the רבונו של עולםiii he could understand?  This is partly a problem of folly – and it would be foolish of me to pretend to read cuneiforms or picture languages, and it’s folly for a person to imagine that he is יודע דעת עליון.xv

Apart from the folly, there’s a certain arrogance involved in this, and a certain self-confidence, which one finds very repugnant.  A person lives through a period of tragedy; hopefully one would expect a response which, on the part of the person, does not focus upon his understanding and perception of why and how the רבונו של עולםiii is running the world.  Theoretically speaking, one could, of course, ascribe a certain result to the רבונו של עולםiii primarily regarding the result as a punitive, or as a neutral, act – when I say neutral, I don’t mean that the results are neutral; many people being killed of course is not neutral at all – but neutral in the sense that the Ramban and, to some extent, the Rambam, when they speak of השגחה פרטית[xvi] – they speak of it being limited to a small number of people – whether the virtues which qualify a person for that are the moral-religious virtues of the Ramban or the intellectual virtues of the Rambam – but jointly, taking the position that השגחה פרטיתxvi varies, is a noble and lofty station, and it is not something which guards the [ordinary] individual.  What happens to the individual, is that he and – with regard to the individual I don’t just mean one person, his whole community – [possibly even] the universal community of his time – is left to the devices of natural forces.

In connection with this I once mentioned, and I published this too, I once went to see Rav Hutner z”l and asked him about the Ramban and the Rambam – and he said, no, חס וחלילה, it doesn’t mean that השגחהxvi has no way of dealing with those who deserve to be punished – it means simply that he is left to his own devices and to natural forces – and it’s a way of the השגחהxvi dealing with those who defy מלכות שמייםi – he’s dealt with, He is now taking someone – throwing him into the lion’s den, and the lions do what they naturally do….

In either case, whether it’s simply with regard to being ignored, and his pleas and prayers also being ignored, or whether it’s an active, punitive act, the assumption that one is able to make such statements – both that he has the right, because he has a sense of his own virtue, and feels it’s his duty – he’s hoping to save his generation – terrible calamities occur because of their sins, and as יחזקאל was able to explain the churban (destruction) of ירושלים, the בית המקדש, etc. – it’s their duty to help humanity mend its ways and restore contact and communication with the רבונו של עולםiii and the י”ג מידות.iv

For all of this, people like myself have no stomach.  First of all, the arrogance implied in יודע דעת עליוןxiii is frightful.  Secondly, even if a person were a יודע דעת עליון, the assumption that his priorities are not to mend himself, his ways, to have teshuvah (repentance) which is focused upon his own misdemeanors or worse, but his primary duty is, assuming that he’s already in good shape, he is out to put the whole world in good shape.

This is a total misconception of what teshuvah demands of a person.  Occasionally – there are נביאיםvi who are נביאיםvi – Yonah could have entered Nineveh and given that message – and then you ask yourself, is that all he has to do?  Why not do something first to amend himself?  The answer could be that there was nothing to mend, that he was a perfect person; that was his self-image.  But if you read the last perek in Yonah, what you get over there, if you have my sensibility – is anything but perfection – there is so much in Yonah’s ultimate station and ultimate mode of expression which requires mending and teshuvah.  It’s not for naught that we read Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur – because Yonah is there not simply to communicate to us, but to give you an example, of what a person who sets himself up as a navi la’goyim (prophet to the nations), where he stands himself.  Chazal were aware of that – Chazal speak of the fact that Yonah was addressed by the רבונו של עולםiii twice – שנית – twice he was addressed, and a third time he was not addressed – part of that self-centered selfishness which comes to expression later.

All of this relates to a religious response, as opposed to the earlier responses that I mentioned, of Voltaire and others.  We live in an age which is after the Shoah, and that is something that we cannot get off our backs, nor something that we should get off our backs.  There are people who speak of the Shoah itself in the vein of מפני חטאנו:xiii why did the Shoah happen, a phenomenon which is much worse from our point of view.  First of all, it is quantitatively, such an enormously larger number group of people.  Secondly, it is focused upon Klal Yisrael, and here, Amos’s message (3:2) – רק אתכם ידעתי מכל משפחות האדמה על כן אפקוד עליהם את כל עונותיכם is there.  Thirdly, the part of Knesset Yisrael which presumably sinned the most was relatively not affected – Western Europe, which is where the sins of that generation were focused – was hit much more mildly, if you can speak in that way, than Eastern Europe, where traditional Yahadut,held sway amongst many.  Nonetheless, there are people who say, no: מפני חטאנו.xiii  That kind of response to the Shoah has elicited terrible responses.

I’m a talmid of Rav Hutner’s, and some of my friends are as well, and one of the things which we, people of my persuasion, and some of my colleague’s persuasions, find it impossible to digest, is the kind of position which the Rosh Yeshivah took – he was interviewed and was asked about the Shoah and he gave a disquisition to explain, based on the Parshiyot in Vayelekh and Nitzavim respectively, and with some analysis of modern European history, primarily focused upon the sinful stance which Western Europe adopted after the French revolution – it was all מפני חטאנו.xiii  With all my respect and admiration, in many aspects, of the Rosh Yeshivah, that is something which I could absolutely not begin to fathom, how one could make that kind of a statement.

What all this adds up to is: one cannot assert that the מפני חטאנוxiii theory is not correct objectively.  But what it does mean is that you have no way of knowing that, and when you don’t know, and you have two options: one is to focus upon your own spiritual needs or the needs of your community, and try to somehow mend our collective ways, and the other option is admitting you don’t know, we will never know, עד ביאת גואל צדק – and therefore, our priorities need to be teshuvah – which includes in it an element of הכרת החטא,[xvii] but that’s not the only element.  Most simply, it’s much better to admit you don’t know rather than to give answers which are, in every way, unsatisfactory from a spiritual point of view.

Emil Fackenheim, who started out as a reform rabbi in Germany, ended up as a ba’al teshuvah in our camp, in the middle of that period, in Reflection and Return, he quoted someone as having asked somebody else, do you think we’ll ever know the explanation for the Shoah.  And the answer that person gave, to which Fackenheim subscribed: I hope not.  I hope not.  I don’t think that anyone can speak in a vein of certainty, or even of likelihood, probability, and then turn around and explain that everybody else was swept aside because they were good for nothing, but he should be saved because he is very good for everything.

I am aware that there are people who don’t think as I do.

It’s frightful to contemplate, but a religious response has to be religious, spiritual, submissive, and not supercilious in any way.  This is not to push – I do push one particular response, religiously speaking – but this is not to bar any number of other possibilities – it’s not for us to limit the רבונו של עולםiii in terms of what he can or can’t do.  We live by a faith, which is manifested in this week’s parshah, that the רבונו של עולםiii is guided by moral principles, by principles of justice, as Avraham Avinu questioned: השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט.[xviii]  We assume there is משפט (justice).  Assuming that, there are questions, admittedly: could the Jews of Eastern Europe have done anything so terrible in terms of violating Shulchan Arukh or violating Shabbat or anything else to deserve the fate which befell them – we can’t begin to imagine that, and we shouldn’t want to imagine that.  So, we need to be submissive and, to some extent, hope for the better, but at the same time that we weep, as it were, for the worst.

There’s another point which comes up in connection with this matter, and that is: some people use such an event as a base for solidifying their religious faith, just the opposite of Voltaire, and they like to talk about human weakness, etc. – just see what the רבונו של עולםiii can do – with the flick of a stick, to upset the whole equilibrium of nature, etc.  Now why someone who is aware, at the most superficial level, of what the modern world knows, which earlier generations did not know, simply in numbers: Einstein, with all his חשבונות (calculations), arrived at the conclusion that the world: 1) is finite, and 2) that its diameter is 35 billion light years.  Now, we believe that ה’ א-לוקינו ה’ אחד – the whole shebang is run by the רבונו של עולם.iii  So, this is something which we need, knowing there is a world out there which is 35 billion light years, which is, perhaps, unfathomable; so that, the רבונו של עולםiii runs every day – in that we believe – המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – but whether He could have the waters of Long Island 10 feet high or 15 feet high – that we need in order to believe that the רבונו של עולםiii in running the world?!  It makes no sense logically or psychologically – but some people use this as a stick to bang over the heads of the secularists – ah hah, you see, you’re getting it in the neck now.

If one had to have some link between this and hashgachah – better to feel sorry for the resha’im (wicked), to respond in that vein in Chazal: מעשי ידי טובעים בים ואתם אומרים שירה,[xix] and tell someone speaking in this vein: מעשי ידי טובעים בים and you are delivering sermons?

I don’t suggest all of this to be something which is satisfying: when all is said and done it’s very sad.  And, as I said, when there is loss of life involved, I don’t know how much money is involved, what the losses are.  One day they put in the press $10 billion or $20 billion, yesterday I saw someone who said that they are putting a cap on it of $50 billion – so you and I think $50 billion is a lot of money.  I assumed, as a דבר פשוט, that the stock market would crash the following day – גארנישט – $50 billion rolled off the cap – and I realized why it didn’t crash: because the sum total of the value of the companies which are listed on the NYSE is way in excess than $50 billion – so if you take the $50 billion divided amongst a lot of people in this world, so it is $10 per person, they can manage, but that’s a separate matter.

Follow-up Question: It seems that Chazal instruct us to find specific reasons and to be תולה the יסורין[xx] which befall us on that specific reason.  For example, in the gemara in Berakhot which says of ראה יסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו, [xxi] eventually, if you don’t find anything, you are תולה on ביטול תורה.[xxii]  How do we relate to that?

Answer: I fully subscribe to that, but that statement, in the gemara itself, does not state with any degree of certainty, much less speak categorically, of why something happened to him.  We once had a discussion here, in Rav Amital’s days – I remembered Rav Amital speaking, if you come home and you can’t find your key to get into the house – it’s nothing tragic but very disconcerting, and then you can ask yourself – what happened?  Everybody else got home ok.   This one got home ok, that one will get home ok and poor you – you don’t get home ok.  So you don’t know –it could be an accident – is the Ramban or the Rambam being acted out on your entering your house, or maybe there are other issues: maybe you didn’t daven minchah with kavanah, maybe you spoke a little lashon hara with your wife, וכדומה with other things – you need to take everything into consideration, and the consideration and response needs to be a spiritual response of mending your ways by reducing, massively, the possible grounds for what happened to you.  That is clearly a desirable and feasible response, but it doesn’t mean that you can say for sure that you are important enough to have such a message addressed to you.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilkhot Ta’aniyot addresses himself to this question – והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי – קרי is exactly accident, force of nature, being left to our own devices.  We are, particularly with regard to what happens to Knesset Yisrael, we are commanded not to ascribe it to accidents, but it doesn’t mean that you can say with certainty what the answer is, since you don’t know, take care of the eventualities, and raise possibilities.

I do not question the fact that there are many statements in Chazal which speak of a cause and effect relationship between different things, and which, very often, are troubling to us because of what seems to us an imbalance between the crime and the punishment.  Take the gemara in Nedarim (32a), which has to do with our Yeshiva too, in a sense: why was Avraham Avinu punished – being punished for him meaning that his generations, his progeny, were punished – שעשה אנגריא בתלמידי חכמים – he drafted Yeshivaleit into the army.  You ask yourself, מרא דעלמא כולה – let’s assume it was a weakness on Avraham Avinu’s part, and you and I wouldn’t say that, we are very humble before Avraham Avinu, we should be, but Chazal had the authority to say that – is it a statement which we can digest with moral comfort?!  We open up another gemara in Sanhedrin, where Mosheh Rabbeinu addressed the רבונו של עולםiii – למה הרעות לעם הזה[xxiii] – and Chazal explain – what he was talking about, למה הרעות לעם הזהxx – he wasn’t talking about a little discomfort – he couldn’t find the key to get into the house – למה הרעות לעם הזהxx – these are thousands of people drowned – כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו[xxiv] – its infants being put to death as part of the bricklaying of building a city – enormous suffering – so all of that because Avraham Avinu drafted תלמידי חכמים as soldiers?!  בסך הכל he didn’t do it for no reason, עשה אנגריא as we make אנגריא – we send people to the army because we feel that’s what needs to be done morally, halakhically.  So let’s assume it was a mistake – generations need to suffer because of that one mistake?

So here and there we read such statements – we find them – I’m not denying that.  But the question is, not can we figure out – to say we are not only יודע דעת עליון,xv but also יודע דעת אברהם אבינו.  To some extent, we live in a world, we must presume to understand certain things – soon we’ll have elections, we need to pass judgment on why Bibi does this or why Bibi does that – you can’t assume to be יודע דעת ביבי.  There are statements which presume judgmental authority – but Chazal are Chazal, and you and I are just you and I.

For us, it behooves us to be modest, to be chozer bi’tshuvah, and hope for the best.


[i] Literally the Heavenly Kingdom, i.e., the Divine realm

[ii] Literally the earthly kingdom, i.e., this world, or, in this case, the natural order

[iii] God

[iv] The Divine attributes of Mercy (see Exodus 34:6-7)

[v] God who is merciful and graceful

[vi] Prophets

[vii] Isaiah and Ezekiel

[viii] Isaiah 6:3

[ix] Ezekiel 1:22

[x] Faith

[xi] Prophecy

[xii] At the giving of the Torah, God was manifest as a teaching elder, while at the Red Sea, He was manifest as a warrior

[xiii] Due to our sins, an expression from the musaf prayer

[xiv] Isaiah 58:1

[xv] Numbers 24:16

[xvi] Divine Providence on the individual level [השגחה alone: Divine Providence]

[xvii] Literally recognition of sin

[xviii] Genesis 18:25

[xix] My creations drown in the sea, and you sing?

[xx] Attribute his suffering

[xxi] Berakhot 5a: If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions….

[xxii] Attribute his suffering to dereliction in the study of Torah

[xxiii] Exodus 5:22

[xxiv] Exodus 1:22

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