In this week’s double portion, Nitzvaiim-Vayeilech, we find a very troubling passage. “All the nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do this to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?’ They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal, God of their ancestors, made with them upon freeing them from the land of Egypt’” (Deuteronomy 29:23-24).
It appears to be part of the human condition to ascribe natural disasters to human actions, or, more specifically, to moral failures. One of the underlying theologies of the Deuteronomist and the Prophets is that the Israelites lost the land because of their failures to keep the covenant as described in the aforementioned passage.
In the past several weeks we have seen two catastrophic hurricanes as well as an earthquake in Mexico, just to name a few. The communities impacted in South Mexico, Texas and Florida will take months and even years to recover, if ever.
In a way, it is comforting to explain these tragedies on moral failures because it gives us mere mortals the illusion of control. But it is a troubling theology. This perspective means that God arbitrarily punishes and rewards communities. The wicked suffer along with the innocent.
The beginning passage would actually disagree with this theology. The prophets and the Deuteronomist always believed in holding the community of Israel accountable for her actions, but they never subscribed to random destruction.
This is perhaps expressed best in I Kings 19 in a story of Elijah, “And lo, Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but God was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but God was not in the fire. After the fire – a still small voice” (I Kings 19:11-12).
Where can we look to find God in the face of natural disasters? Certainly not in the disasters themselves. Perhaps instead we see God in the first responders and the communities that rally around each other. We find God in the people who help out their neighbors and the communities unaffected who offer their generosity in support. God can be found in the still, small voice. The Holy cry that reminds us not to place moral blame in times of great tragedy, but rather to seek out humanity and help out all those in need.
We are continuing to collect donations of gift cards to send to the communities in Houston and South Florida. Any gift will be directed to those affected regions and given out to those in need.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff