Turkey and Syria have just suffered a series of lethal earthquakes, the first striking early on February 6. The death toll is in the tens of thousands. This has obviously created a major humanitarian catastrophe which in addition to the thousands dead, will leave many millions affected.
The State of Israel responded immediately by sending a large humanitarian force, a decision which may seem obvious to most Israelis and Jews around the world, but a column written by Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu and published in religious weekly Olam Katan, seems to suggest otherwise. It is worth considering how he and Colonel (res.) Golan Vach, mission commander from the IDF Home Front Command, reflect a contrasting ethos.
Divine retribution or religious reflection?
In his column, Rabbi Eliyahu draws a parallel between the fate of the Egyptians at the Red Sea after the Children of Israel were freed from slavery and saved in the great miracle of its parting, and the situation of the State of Israel in a constant state of Divine vengeance against those around us who act evilly towards us. After the parting of the sea, the Children of Israel sang in recognition of the great miracle.
Rabbi Eliyahu explains that they sang as “they understood that there is Divine justice to pay back to the Egyptians because they drowned the Jewish babies in the Nile, and in order that all the wicked peoples of the world would see and be afraid.” In the article Eliyahu compares modern enemies Syria, Lebanon and Turkey to ancient Egypt, and suggests that “everything that happens is in order to clean the world and make it a better place.”
Natural disasters and earthquakes have been the subject of theological and philosophical debate for many centuries. Some see the fate of innocent suffering as a reason to question the existence of God, while others have used these events for prayer and reflection. Some, like Voltaire, responded to the earthquake of Lisbon in 1775 to deny that humanity can be optimistic, or that this could be God’s will.
Others, like Rousseau, suggested that buildings collapsing is the threat we need to consider and that man has his role to play in saving lives from natural disasters. One of the twentieth century’s leading Orthodox thinkers, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, reflected on human suffering in Out of the Whirlwind in which he separates his religious understanding of suffering into three categories; evil does exist, and it is bad; the world we live in has many deformities and inadequacies, and we have to recognize it for what it is; and we must never acquiesce to evil or make peace with it, thereby condoning its existence.
Two years ago, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, seemingly within sight of his own demise, responded to a similar question: God himself does not want us to know why bad things happen to good people, so that we don’t ever accept as fate that bad things will happen, God wants us to fight against the bad and injustices of this world.
Ultimately, Soloveitchik’s and Sacks’s response to evil and suffering is a call to moral action.
Colonel Golan Vach was sent by the Israeli government as head of the mission made up of hundreds of Israeli experts in search and rescue, and emergency medicine, to assist the Turkish authorities in saving as many lives as possible. His team was successful in finding and saving 19 survivors, and continues to give medical aid to the wounded.
This is not the first mission he has led and Israel always offers aid in the face of international humanitarian disasters, irrespective of the relations it has with the country that has suffered. Indeed, the media reported that Israel offered humanitarian aid to victims of the earthquake in Syria, which was turned down. This is something about which all Israelis and indeed Jews everywhere should be proud.
This state response, along with Israelis and Jews offering donations for humanitarian aid, seems a fitting moral response in line with Rabbi Soloveitchik who offers that when we see the suffering of others – “We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty, but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes. We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose, but, rather, about how it might be mended and elevated. How shall a person act in a time of trouble?”
A different reading of the Red Sea miracle
On the Shabbat before the Turkish disaster, we read in the weekly Torah portion the biblical events that Rabbi Eliyahu describes. Founder of the 929 learning project Rabbi Benny Lau gives us a very different reading, delivered as part of his weekly online lesson.
Rabbi Lau offers that according to the Talmud, God hears the singing of His praise following the miracle of the Red Sea – but He calls out, “My creations are drowning and you are singing!” This is specifically referring to the suffering of the Egyptians. Lau refers to this and makes the point that our sages are teaching us that even our worst enemies are entitled to a degree of compassion.
In his Shabbat drasha (sermon) on that Torah portion, Rabbi Meir Lichtenstein recounted a talk given by his father, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in the aftermath of the Japanese Tsunami in 2005. In that talk, the rabbi makes two crucial points; that Abraham himself prayed for humanity, even when they were evil and sinners; and regarding those who look at current events, offering their own Divine explanation, he says the following, “This pretentiousness – moral, philosophical and religious pretentiousness – we totally reject.”
The idea that people are trapped under the rubble in Turkey and Syria is a reason for us to sing praise is simply grotesque and a distortion of our basic sense of morality. On the other hand, the fact that Israel is often the first to send humanitarian assistance is a way for us, as a country, to emulate the best Jewish traditions.
Chief rabbi of Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu is a member of the Council of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and the son of former Israeli chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu. It is tragic in my eyes that he cannot find the most minimal compassion in the face of such human suffering.
In stark contrast, I think that we can all be proud of the amazing Colonel Vach and his team and the manner in which they represent Israel and Judaism. He is not just an Israeli hero but a very Jewish one.
The writer is founding partner of Goldrock Capital and founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research. He was a founding chair of the Coalition for Haredi Employment and is a former chair of Gesher and World Bnei Akiva.