Finite 2 Plus Finite 2 Do Not Always Equal Infinite Four

We are hearing all kinds of lessons to be drawn from the catastrophe in Asia, such as: we need to cherish every minute of life; to strive for humility; to recognize the awesome power of Gd; to lend help and support to the victims; to pray for understanding; to draw closer to Gd – and much more.

While the air is filled with such noble and unassailable sentiments, very few people are talking about the theodicy issues raised by the catastrophe. Not that mortal man will come up with answers that will satisfy our limited understanding. But within the confines of our finite capacities, a look at the religious implications of what has taken place – even if we discover no answers – is, I think, in order. Even though the issue are terrible and terrifying, to push them under the table as if they do not exist helps no one, because the issues do exist. And it is possible that placing them squarely on the table might serve to provide some spiritual relief and succor to many of us.

Especially is this true of a forum like this blog that that claims to offers a traditional Jewish perspective on life – even though we know at the outset that we are far less capable of apprehending the secret ways of Gd than were our great forebears who were thwarted in their attempts to pierce the divine mysteries.

For Jews who have for millenia lived through large and small holocausts, questions of Gd’s justice are not new. Abraham, Moses, Job, among many other of our prophets and sages, asked Gd to explain His ways to mortal man. Such issues have always hovered on the periphery of our consciousness.

Historicaly, however, we have had the dubious comfort of ascribing terrible events to evil empires and to evil people who hated not only the Jews but hated Gd Himself. Of course, this did not mitigate the questions of why horrors like the Holocaust were visited upon us. But at the very least our awareness of the evil inherent within the human heart – “for the impulse of man’s heart is evil from his youth” ( Gen. 8:21) and “his thoughts are evil continually” (6:5) – made things somewhat less incomprehensible. And the tochecha/Admonition sections of the Torah (Lev. 22; Deut.28) also provided some frame of reference, however frightening.

But in natural disasters of the kind we have just witnessed, there is no one at whom to point a finger, no one to blame, no frame of reference. Nature? (Is nature independent of Gd?) Happenstance? (Is there such a thing in
Gd’s world?) Random events? (Randomness in a universe overseen by Gd?)

Although we know that answers remain beyond us, and that no mortals ( and certainly not bloggers) are granted the keys to the divine chambers, the questions of today will not go away. The same Gd Who does not reveal His full Self to inquiring man ( “for no man can see Me and live” ( Ex. 3:20) – has endowed that same man with a mind that restlessly asks and probes. It is in our nature as children of Gd to seek to comprehend the incomprehensible, to fathom the unfathomable.

Although we remain strong believers in a just Gd despite unanswered questions — “though He slay me I still believe in Him” ( Job 13:15)– we must not hide our face from the questions.

Here are some of the questions I have been hearing this week – from believing people who are tormented and are struggling to reach out for something to cling to amidst the maelstrom of doubt and confusion that pervades the present atmosphere. (Those who do not believe do not ask any questions: they “know” that the universe has no sovereign, is not run by anyone, that all is caprice and random, and for them the questions of Gd and justice and reward and punishment do not pose any problems. Their position creates other intellectual problems, of course, which we shall not discuss here.)

  • If Gd is good and just, how can such things happen? Is there a hidden, ultimate good that can be derived from such suffering?
  • Is this a caprice of nature? Is not Gd the Gd of nature as of everything else?
  • If this not caprice, but a demonstration of Gd’s awesome and awe-filled power, to what purpose is this
    demonstration, and at what cost?
  • If this is a punishment of sorts, what crime warrants such punishment?
  • We are being told to take something away from all this, some way in which to heighten our awarenes of our Creator and to strengthen our own humanness. We are ready to do this – but are there not other, less painful ways through which to impart this new awareness?
  • Is this is a test of our faith? If so, at what cost?

More sophisticated and subtle questions:

  • If this catastrophe was designed to intensify our Awe and Fear of the Lo-d ( yir’at haShem), it certainly succeeded. But what of the next plateau beyond Awe of Gd, which is Love of Gd (ahavat haShem)? Specifically, when now we recite the daily Sh’ma, ” And thou shalt love the Lo-d thy Gd with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might,” we are being asked to perform a heroic act of faith and love despite our shock and pain and grief. If love of Gd is demanded of us, obviously we are deemed capable of doing it despite everything – but, dear Lo-d, in what way do disastrous events increase our love of You?
  • Is it permitted to say to Gd that His Good Name in the world is at stake (“Why should the nations say, Where is their Gd?” (Ps. 115:2)? Why should unbelievers be strengthened in their unbelief, now more than ever convinced that all of life is haphazard and without rhyme or reason? Or, again,is our faith being tested?
  • Shall we study the Book of Job, particularly its magnificent closing chapters in which Gd tells the
    questioning Job that man simply cannot fathom His mysterious ways because man is finite and Gd is Infinite?

Two final thoughts:

  • Are we seeing a manifestation of Gd hiding His face, about which He speaks clearly in Deut. 31:17-18: “… I will surely hide My face from them….”? Is this the great punishment that Gd visits upon His world – that in His
    displeasure, as it were, He temporarily turns away from us, withdraws from the affairs of man, and allows the ship of the world to run amok as if it had no Captain – in effect saying, This is how it is when you abandon Me? Does this give us any insight into the events?
  • What is the meaning of the mysterious Talmudic comment that earthquakes – of which a tsunami is born – are the result of ” two tears of Gd”:

    “When the Holy One calls to mind His children, who suffer among the nations of the world, He lets fall two tears into the ocean, and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other….” (Ber. 59a)

    Is there some hidden comfort here?

One last note: Let us eschew approaches that are glib, facile and simplistic. The divine arithmetic is not our arithmetic. In His realm, finite two plus finite two do not always equal the Infinite four.

Who knows, perhaps after all is said and done, once we have placed some of the issues on the table, our most eloquent reponse might well be to remain dumb and silent. As King David put it, “To Thee, silence is praise” (Ps. 65:2).

Later, in his Psalm 131: 1-2, he writes:

I have not exercised myself in great matters or in things too wondrous for me. Surely I have quieted myself as a weaned child beside his mother….

Clearly these are events “too wondrous for me.” Shall we sigh deeply, pray intensely, and then get on with the business of living and serving and helping and supporting those in distress?

The times are trying. Only Gd can provide the healing to our spiritual travail. But we can take great comfort from His prophet Isaiah, 54:8:

With a slight wrath have I concealed My face from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness will I show you mercy, says your Redeemer, the Lo-d.

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14 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Hello Rabbi Feldman,
    I am a great admirer of your writing, both the content and the prose. Certainly we cannot fully understand those things that the kadmonim couldn’t. So, yes, we should approach with due caution and depth. At the same time, I am bit frustrated with those who are so quick to criticize g’dolim who have attempted to explain why certain tragedies occur. If we are not n’viyim that can give specific reasons, I think that we can say with confidence that tradegies happen because of aveiros and they are intended to inspire t’shuvah. I think this attitude is the minimun demanded by the Torah and to say otherwise is perhaps even cruel.

  2. Micha says:

    If I may make a meta-comment:

    I’m happy to see a post that actually is Orthodox Judaism as opposed to a post about the sociology of the Orthodox community as part of the greater Jewish and world communities. This forum has some good names associated with it; I’d be thrilled to see more of your Torah.


  3. Jack says:

    I think that we can say with confidence that tradegies happen because of aveiros and they are intended to inspire t�shuvah.

    I am sorry, but I find this line of thought to be offensive and just completely unsatisfactory. To suggest that because someone broke Shabbos, ate a cheeseburger or did some other dastardly deed is a reason to destroy the lives of thousands is unacceptable. I cannot buy into it.

    The people who look at the deaths in Asia and claim that these people were killed because of their sins make me very angry. So many of the victims were children, I don’t believe for a moment in a G-d that would act in this fashion.

  4. David Brand says:

    Trying to ascribe reasons to the disaster is very problematic. By this, I mean CAUSATIVE reasons, such as “he did X, and that’s why this (or any) disaster occurred”. There are far too many tragedies that simply defy explantaion, especially when the victims are innocent children.

    As a predicted in an earlier post, my Rov, Rabbi Zev Cohen, addressed the Tsunami tragedy directly. To paraphrase his words, he called a couple of gedolim for advice on how to understand such massive tragedy on such a massive scale. The answer was, simply that there are certain things that we, as humans, cannot understand. At the same time, he quoted two sources. In Yevamos 63a, “R’Elazar bar Avina said that misfortune comes to the world only on account of Israel.” That means that while we cannot ascribe a CAUSATIVE relationship between us and the Tsunami, it certainly came about for us to pay attention to. The second source was the very first Rashi in Berashis tells us that the good things in the world were created for us. He gave several real-world examples of modern inventions and conveniences that make our lives easier and said that they were created for us.

    To sum it up, both the good and bad things are created for us. It’s our job to pay attention to things and realize that we have a very high level of responsibility.

  5. Michoel says:

    I was actually very careful to NOT say either of the two things you attribute to me. RE your cheesburger comment, when people speak with gross hyperbole all communication shuts down. RE your second paragraph, I said that tragedies happen because of aveiros. I did not say who’s avieros and I also did not say that inonocent people never suffer. Please reread my post. This is a forum for everyone but is a forum about Orthodox Judaism. The Torah, which I believe was given by Gd on Mt. Sinai, states very clearly what the consequences of aveiros are. Is a Gd that says he will bring terrible harsh punishments for sins any less cruel (so to speak) than a Gd who actually does it?

  6. Scott Aarons says:

    Indonesia is the largest radical Islamic state on this planet. My concerns are about giving chartiy and mercy to those who mean to kill us. The Indonesians had massive demonstrations of joy when the World Trade Towers were destoyed. The Indonesians had massive demonstrations in support of Osama bin Laden as we prepared our war in Afghanistan. The Indonesians ruthlessly slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent Christians just because they are Christians. There is no doubt in my mind that the child we save in Indonesia today will be the suicide bomber of tomorrow. Most of our Jewish and Christian bretheren are overcome with emotions of sympathy and horror over what the tsunami has wrought upon our enemies and have given to their aid in their hour of need. However, I am convinced that there will me no gratitude as evidenced by what took place in Sri Lanka. I was under the impression that those who are compassionate with the wicked are in turn being cruel to the righteous. Am I out of line? I will respect the criticisms of Rev. Feldman and the other contributors to this forum.

  7. josef says:

    Picking up on David Brand….” It�s our job to pay attention to things and realize that we have a very high level of responsibility.”

    My grandfather (of blessed memory), who never attended any school, once told me “J..someatimes too much education isa no good.” What he meant, of course, is that our ability and desire to delve into the deepest areas of mystifying thought or confounding events, too often blocks our understanding of the simplest meanings, and affects our behaviour on the most basic level.

    For some 4,000 years the world has struggled with the concept of “the chosen people”. And like it or not, the Israelites were “it” then, and we are still “it” today though some seem to have trouble recalling what “it” means. Some forget G-d was never in need of any special people….but mankind definitely was in need of them.

    We need to pay attention to the world in which we live, the mankind of which we are a part. And we need to fulfill our highest level of responsibility through a demonstrated comprehension of what that means.

    Though the media largely ignored it, within hours of the tsunami tragedy becoming known to the world, two planeloads of medicine, baby food, and other aid, departed Israel for the stricken countries….that is hours, not days. And more was being prepared. No question was asked as to why such tragedy occurred, nor was action delayed pending an answer from the recesses of Kaballah. A portion of mankind was suddenly afflicted and available help had to be provided.

    So long ago we said “We will do, and we will hear.” Each day today we are challenged to be what we are supposed to be, do as we are supposed to do, in the belief that in doing we will be blessed with understanding. Personally, the daily challenges are so all-encompassing it is hard to find time to ponder the “why” of each portion. In the end we all should stand in awe by the fact that we are devinely prodded to do what we are supposed to do, and we are then even blessed for doing it.

  8. Marvin Schwartz says:

    First answer why re; the Holocaust then go to other tragedies.

  9. Chaim says:

    Of course we can’t contemplate the actions of G-d. However, as to Mr. Aarons’s comment, there are two things to keep in mind. 1) Not all of the victtims are Arabs, and therefore not terrorists. 2) We can’t play G-d. We aren’t the one’s to decide, “Oh, he’ll become a terrorist. We can’t save him. If not him, someone else will perform the act. It’s not our place.

    Also remember; It’s very possible that the children who were killed would’ve grown up to become terrorists. These comments may sound contradictory, but they’re not. We didn’t play G-d, G-d himself acted. I just hope these comments will help enlighten some.

  10. Albert Lakanu says:

    In time of tragedy, we see people as people, not as opponet, we should extend a loving hands and a warm caring heart, as the mitzvah ‘sing’, love your neighbour as you. But in every event of this magnitude, there are lessons to be learnt, The g’dolim, He who hid His face in the inner structure, He who ruled with His mind conceal, might be talking to us. Today is the Nations, next it might be us, if we do’nt shape up. –Al–

  11. James Keyes says:

    “Although we remain strong believers in a just Gd despite unanswered questions � �though He slay me I still believe in Him� ( Job 13:15)� we must not hide our face from the questions.” Perhaps the questions themselves are more of a sign of our rebellious nature than we care to admit. I find no comfort in questions, but prefer to do what I know is required. As Rabbi Feldman so aptly puts it: “sigh deeply, pray intensely, and then get on with the business of living and serving and helping and supporting those in distress.” All the rest seems to be an incorrect response to Gd’s creation.

  12. Ed Love says:

    It seem that after every catastrophe someone asks the questions, “Why did Gd do this?” or “Why did Gd let this happen?” I agree with Thomas Jefferson who said, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that Gd is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” The question is not so much did those who died ‘deserve’ it. We all ‘deserve’ it. The question is why has Gd not wiped us all off the face of the earth. We need to thank him for his longsuffering love and the fact that we have the opportunity for a chance to become what he would have us become. In his trials, Job said, “Shall we accept good from Gd and not trouble?”

  13. Heshy Grossman says:

    It’s great to see the comments of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman posted here. Rabbi Feldman is undoubtedly one of the most eloquent and intelligent Orthodox writers on the planet. May G-d bless you with continued years of health, happiness and Nachas from your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Kein Yirbu!

  14. Phil Silverman says:

    1. I believe the Rambam wrote “Sefer Ahava” — How to Love God. Can you help us readers find the section on how to love God after a horrible tragedy?
    2. I think that Rabbi Pam had said about the Holocaust: “Not only don’t we have the answers, we don’t even have the questions.” How does this comment square with all these great attempts at finding great questions?

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