As a member of the clergy community, my colleagues and I have been asked many theological questions concerning the Tsunami disaster. It is no wonder that the biblical texts give us guidance in this area. The Bible states, “The mysteries belong to God” (Deut 29:28) and “God is in heaven and you are on the earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Eccl 5:1).
There is no doubt that for the authors of the Bible, disasters such as the Tsunami were both startling and beyond the power of understanding of mere mortals. The greatest Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, referred to this phenomenon as “radical mystery or radical amazement.” Some things we just cannot understand.
Nevertheless, there are some who will want to see some sort of divine retribution or the hand of God in this tragedy. Jewish tradition will reject such an assertion. There is no way that one can justify the tragic deaths of so many thousands of people, especially young children. There is no way that a theological definition can be given as to why so many children were made into orphans by this disaster.
From our perspective, it is absolute idolatry to say God did this, because only God can know, and we are left with the mystery.
It can be said that just because “a” causes “b”, “b” is not always the result of “a.” A nail on the road can cause a flat tire, but every flat tire is not the result of a nail. Sometimes tires are just worn out.
Sometimes, terrible tragedies will happen to innocent people and our task as people of faith is to accept these tragedies with grace and love, and to do so reaffirms our faith in God.
From a Jewish perspective therefore, the issue is not “why” did these things happen, but “what” can we do to comfort the bereaved and alleviate the pain of those that survived.
Here, the word “responsibility” becomes very important. Responsibility literally means responding according to our ability.
It is clear now that eventually there will be a more effective early warning system in that part of our world and making sure that happens is the responsibility of us all.
Responsibility also means giving generously to charitable organizations who are engaged in disaster relief.
These are two specific ways in which we can answer the question, what can we do? But I would maintain that there are three other things we can do as well.
First of all, we can increase our appreciation of the value of life. Let us understand that we or those that we love can be swept away from life as we know it tomorrow. Today is the day therefore to tell our friends and our family just how much we love them. Today is the time that we should pick up the phone and call that person, a family member to whom we haven’t spoken in a long time.
Second, let us understand that what is needed now is a consciousness of unity of all humankind. We are connected to each other as inhabitants of this beautiful green planet. We need to add to our community consciousness, our American consciousness and our religious consciousness a planetary consciousness.
Finally, now is the time to renew our faith in the importance of the good deeds of kindness that we do. If an earthquake can cause massive waves of destruction, let our acts of goodness can cause massive waves of construction. Waves of goodness will always overcome waves of destruction.
Our acts of love can have cosmic significance if we will allow ourselves to believe that when we love one another, we indeed repair the world.
Fred Guttman is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C., and a regular reader of EthicsDaily.com.
Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he served as rabbi from 1995 to 2021. Guttman is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.