Guest Columnist: Man, God and earthquakes

According to Talmudic teaching, there clearly is a direct connection between human behavior and natural disasters.

Almost as soon as the massive earthquake struck Haiti, the erstwhile soothsayers were hard at work offering various and sundry reasons why it happened where it happened when it happened. One of the theories bandied about in cyberspace was Haiti’s high rate of AIDS, recalling that Haiti was named as an original source of the disease along with three other “Hs” – homosexuals, heroin addicts and hemophiliacs. Others boldly opined that Haiti was “chosen” for destruction because it was a prime practitioner of incest, child molestation, voodoo and witchcraft, even having made a pact with the devil in the late 1700s that was only now being expiated.
We sophisticated citizens of the 21st century, of course, tend to dismiss these self-proclaimed prophets out of hand, shrugging our shoulders and proclaiming, in so many words, that “earthquakes happen.” That is, nature has its own, often unpredictable regimen and manifests itself when and where it sees fit, with no connection whatsoever to the foibles or failings of humanity.
But is this what Judaism believes?
The classic Jewish source on the subject of natural disasters in general – and earthquakes in particular – is found in the Talmud, tractate Brachot 59. As regarding many outstanding events in nature – such as thunder, lightning or a volcanic eruption – the expression of a blessing, praising God as “He who made the workings of creation,” is pronounced upon experiencing an earthquake.
But then the Talmud records a brief, but bizarre story: The sage Rabbi Katina was once passing by the home of a celebrated necromancer – known for his ability to divine higher “truths” using bones of the dead – when he felt tremors beneath the ground. He called out, “Does the sorcerer know why earthquakes occur?” To which the necromancer replied, “Of course, Katina, why shouldn’t I know! When God takes notice of his children, who are mired in oppression among the nations of the world, He drops two tears into the ocean, and the resultant commotion is heard from one end of the world to the other.”
Rabbi Katina – clearly shaken by both the tremors under his feet and the penetrating words of the witch doctor, proclaims, “The necromancer is a liar, for if there are two tears, then I should have felt two earthquakes!” But the Talmud indicates that, indeed, there were two earthquakes; the necromancer was right on target, but the sage did not want to add to his already significant reputation.
And so Katina adds his own rationale, as well as that of several other rabbis, to explain the occurrence of earthquakes: “Earthquakes come about when God claps His mighty hands together; or when God sighs a weary sigh, or when He kicks the firmament of heaven.”
THE CONCLUSIONS we may draw from this talmudic tale are several, and significant: First, there clearly is a direct connection between human behavior and natural disasters; coincidence and randomness do not exist within God’s universe. Second, it is neither a sin nor a pointless exercise to seek out – from Jewish or other sources – the reasons why such phenomena occur. Indeed, the real sin may lie in letting such cataclysmic events pass without reflecting on their implications, ignoring the messages sent from above for our ultimate benefit. And third, at the risk of sounding arrogant, the fate of Israel and the Jewish people – as reflected in the preponderance of our mention in headlines throughout the world – is always at “center stage.”
I would focus on two lessons provided by the talmudic passage as being paramount: On a philosophical, theological level, God is fully cognizant and supremely concerned about what happens to us.
However, to protect the sanctity of free choice, He limits His own power to automatically intervene, and allows people, of their own volition, to practice good or evil. If lightning struck us each time we attempted to hurt another or, conversely, if gold coins dropped at our feet each time we sought to do good, we would no longer be exercising our own will to either deviate from or conform to God’s attributes.
Nevertheless, when we are hurting, God is not altogether emotionless. He shares our pain and, in His own frustration at our plight and His self-imposed reluctance to miraculously deliver us on each and every occasion, He cries, claps His hands together or kicks the sky (or the wall, as it were) – all classic reactions of one who confronts tragedy and can do little to ameliorate it.
On a practical level, I learn that nature – as one of God’s most impressive creations – is not disconnected from human behavior. When the actions of people are perverse and out of kilter, when we wreak havoc upon others, then nature will also be out of kilter, and “natural disasters” will perforce occur. But when we act in consonance with God’s will – and when the Jewish people, ever the litmus test of world morality, is treated in a moral and equitable fashion – then nature will react in kind, bending to the needs and nuances of mortal man.
As for the nagging question of why some escape while others are caught in nature’s excesses, why Haiti or Thailand are targeted while other nations are spared, that is an imponderable that may indeed be beyond our limited purview. But we certainly can contemplate the grander picture of our role in perfecting the world, while at the same time reacting on a case-by-case basis to nature’s “imperfections” by helping those in need and comforting the survivors. This Israel has done in an exemplary fashion, proving we are still worthy of our title, “Light unto the Nations.”
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.