Is surviving a terror attack a divine reward or punishment? - opinion

Everyone deals with trauma in a different way and it’s important for people to process their pain in a way that works for them.

 AN ISRAELI flag hangs as a religious man ponders at the scene of a terror attack at the entrance to Jerusalem, on November 23. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
AN ISRAELI flag hangs as a religious man ponders at the scene of a terror attack at the entrance to Jerusalem, on November 23.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

‘Thank God! It’s a miracle!”

“What hashgacha pratit (Divine providence) that you weren’t killed!”

“God was really watching over you!”

These are just some of the many comments terror victims and their families repeatedly hear in the weeks following surviving an attack. People mean well when they proclaim just how fortunate the survivor of an attack was in comparison to victims who didn’t survive. These statements are meant to give comfort and solace to the victims and demonstrate the gratitude the well-wisher has that their friend survived.

Everyone deals with trauma in a different way and it’s important for people to process their pain in a way that works for them. After our daughter Naomi survived an attack, I managed my emotions by thinking about God’s role in the attack. Did our daughter experience a miracle? Did God save her from an attack?

When contemplating God’s role in the attack, I narrowed down the possibilities to three options. The first option is that God conducted a miracle and saved Naomi from tragedy. The second possibility is that the attack was the way of the world and not God’s action. The third possibility was that God conducted the event not as a salvatory miracle but as a tragic opportunity for atonement. I was left to try and understand which possibility was correct.

 The scene of a suspected terror attack near the entrance to Jerusalem, on November 23, 2022. Two explosions at two bus stops left one person killed and at least another 13 injured.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) The scene of a suspected terror attack near the entrance to Jerusalem, on November 23, 2022. Two explosions at two bus stops left one person killed and at least another 13 injured. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It is common to hear Torah scholars, laypeople and even children declare that everything that happens in the world is an act of specific Divine providence specifically designed for each individual. Chabad Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote, “From the plain meaning of scriptural, Talmudic and Midrashic texts emerges a view of God intimately involved in every detail of His works, providing even ‘To the fledgling raven that for which it cries,’ (Psalms 147:9).” Freeman continued and wrote, “The Baal Shem Tov is credited with the reintroduction of the idea of hashgacha pratit, the detailed divine supervision of every occurrence and every creature.”

While the notion that every event in an individual’s life is an act of Divine providence might be a common understanding, especially within hassidic thought, today, it is far from the consensus view among early Torah scholars. The Rambam wrote in Moreh Nevuchim, III:18, that not everyone merits God providentially being involved in their lives; God’s involvement in one’s life is measured in relation to the righteousness of their actions.

For everyone who doesn’t merit Divine providence specifically guiding their lives, there is a general Divine providence, which is how God arranged the world. Almost all early Torah scholars agree with either the Rambam’s view exactly or close to the Rambam’s understanding of specific and general Divine providence (hashgacha pratit and clalit, foundational principles). The Baal Shem Tov’s view that hashgacha pratit, as the detailed Divine supervision of every occurrence and every creature, was something every person experienced was not the traditional view held for thousands of years by Torah scholars.

The traditional view

THE TRADITIONAL view of hashgacha pratit spoke to me more than the contemporary view. That left me with the same question I started with: how does one determine if a terror attack one survived was an act of hashgacha pratit as a reward or opportunity for atonement, or was it just the way of the world? Rabbi Saul Zucker frequently points to Mordechai’s challenge to Esther, “Who knows? Perhaps you have attained to a royal position for just such a crisis.”

While most understand this as a statement and not a question, Zucker believes Mordechai wasn’t completely sure Esther reached her position as an act of specific Divine providence, hashgacha pratit. Maybe it was just hashgacha clalit (the way of the world). If Mordechai, a prophet, speaking to another prophetess, wasn’t sure, how can we determine whether events are hashgacha pratit or hashgacha clalit?

While people can’t determine God’s exact role in modern-day events, they must react to events in a proper way. When life-altering events occur, whether they are joyous occasions or tragic events like a terror attack, it provides the opportunity for a person to pause and recognize God and the universe around them.

These events should be taken as a time to examine one’s life, to introspect, take time with one’s family and reconnect with God. This is how I have chosen to react to the terror attack that shook our family. Not that I would choose to have it happen again or wish it on anyone, but it has brought us closer together as a family and allowed us the space to think about our lives.

There is a Jewish law that when passing the place of an event where tragedy almost occurred to them, but they survived, like a terror attack, one recites a blessing, “God, You are the source of all blessing, the God of the universe, Who performed a sign for me in this place.” The word for “sign” in the blessing is often translated as “miracle.” The blessing encourages people to see the event that occurred to them as a sign to wake up and repent and improve their lives.

Our family’s world was shaken a month ago when a terrorist set a remote-controlled bomb off at the entrance of Jerusalem. We deal with the ramifications of the attack every day. We are blessed to have family, friends and a community who have rallied around us to make sure we are OK.

We are grateful to the doctors and therapists who have been treating us and to the Israeli and American governments who are supporting us through these moments. We will forever be cognizant of the tragedy some families have suffered and of what we escaped.

Most importantly, while we don’t know the role God has played, we are grateful to God for our survival and take this event as a sign to recommit to following God’s Torah and mitzvot.

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israeli studies around the world.