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Ask the Rabbi

Posted on 28 January 2010 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
If God is understood through his actions, how are we supposed to understand him in the face of the tragedy in Haiti?
Marc S.

Dear Marc,

If your question is why this happened, it is obviously a question I cannot even attempt to answer. In the days of prophecy, when a tragedy befell the people they could turn to the local prophet and hear directly what G-d’s message was. (As I always say, now we’re a non-prophet organization.) In current times, we cannot ever know definitively why any specific calamity transpires. (Perhaps Christian evangelist Pat Robertson feels he’s a prophet to decide this happened because of the Haitian “pact made with the devil” many years ago.)

I understand from your words a different question: What is it about G-d that we need to understand from the events in Haiti? What attribute of G-d is expressed in disasters such as these?

Firstly, we need to put this event into the context of many such events throughout world history. Not so long ago the world was dealing with the devastation wrought by the tsunami. Going back through the human record of history, we find numerous similar tragedies.

Secondly, if you will think deeply enough and remove emotion from intellect, the same question really applies to the tragic death of one innocent child, whether by a car accident or serious illness. Seventy thousand deaths are one death multiplied 70,000 times.

The first known tragedy of the proportion of Haiti, and quite far beyond, was that of the Flood in the days of Noah. Society had sunk to a level of decadence that warranted the Al-mighty to bring the human race to an end. The purpose for which G-d created the world was so flagrantly violated so as to no longer justify the existence of the world. Only one man, Noah, and his family were worthy of life and to be the “pack of seeds” to replant the garden of mankind. What trait did G-d exercise in the Flood?

In the daily Amidah prayer we approach G-d as “Gadol, Gibor Venorah,” the “Great, Powerful and Awesome One” (based upon Deuteronomy 10:17). The rabbis explain that “Gadol/Great” refers to G-d’s trait of loving kindness, or chesed. This is the trait by which G-d created the universe, the purpose of which is ultimately to bestow His chesed upon it. It is the trait by which the Jews were saved from Egypt, the manna fell, babies are born and our hearts beat. This trait was embodied in the first patriarch, Abraham.

“Gibor” is G-d’s trait of strict justice, the attribute of din. This trait corresponds to the patriarch Isaac, who was offered up on the altar. This attribute is the one exercised when events which we perceive as tragedies and calamities befall the world. It is the trait expressed through sickness, loss of jobs and the crash of markets.

“Norah,” which corresponds to Jacob, is not pertinent to the present discussion.

The traits of Gadol and Gibor also correspond to day and night: Day, the time of light and warmth, expresses G-d’s love and kindness. Night, the time of darkness and cold, matches up to the trait of judgment.

Let us draw a loose parallel to Lincoln’s decision to fight a civil war. Although he knew there would be great loss of human life and suffering, he morally justified those losses as the cost of freedom, and today is held in high esteem for that moral judgment.

One difference between the Civil War and Haiti is that we don’t know what the moral reason for doing so is, what judgment is being exacted upon the world for which crime, what the wake-up call precisely is. We must be pained over the tragedy of loss of life and homes and do all we can to help (and be proud of the incredible efforts of our brethren in Israel for all they’ve done). And we need to hear the wake-up call to all, to do something to improve our thoughts and actions and become better people and better Jews.

Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at yfried@sbcglobal.net.

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