Lessons from Katrina

Someone forwarded a letter to me — unfortunately without the signature — by some pundit “explaining” that Katrina hit New Orleans because Louisiana is the home state of Condoleeza Rice. This catastrophic hurricane with all its attendant loss of life and property is punishment for Condoleeza Rice’s “forcing” Israel to abandon Gaza.

Probably it isn’t even necessary to comment on such convoluted reasoning, but I will anyway. First of all, Condi Rice is a lifelong, very warm and very vocal friend of Israel. And needless to say, Sharon’s four-year, single-minded program of imposing a unilateral “solution” to the Arab question long predates her accession to the State Department. Second of all, if she was really the cause of the hurricane, then Divine wrath should have struck Washington and not New Orleans. In fact, there should have been a fire in her own personal kitchen. Why are all these other people suffering for her?!

Aside from all of that, the larger question of understanding G-d’s ways cannot be addressed by facile and ad hoc “reasoning” like that of my unknown correspondent. The entire Book of Koheles addresses the question of the suffering of the righteous, and concludes that human beings can never fully fathom G-d’s ways.

There is no question that a blow like Katrina will hit the whole country and not just New Orleans, Biloxi and Gulfport. One can easily point to a long list of sins committed by America and say this one or that one must be “the reason.” The left might say it’s because we unlawfully removed Saddam from his rightful position as beloved leader of his innocent country. The right (with rather more sense) might say it’s because of the pornography and immorality that pollute the land. It’s always a good idea, when tragedy strikes, to examine one’s deeds and repent. But no one really knows “the” reason.

Furthermore, every single individual who lost his life or his home was struck for his own separate reason, known only to G-d. For one person it might have been a punishment for deeds known only to himself, while for another person it might have been simply his time to die, because his mission on earth was complete. Why G-d saved certain individuals and allowed others to die is simply beyond our ability to know or even to conjecture.

There are certain classic Jewish responses to catastrophes, and all of these are appropriate. One such response, as I said, is to consider one’s deeds and repent. This can be done privately by each and every person whose heart is moved by scenes of great suffering.

Another classic Jewish response is the urge to do chessed, to make donations and to help suffering victims in any way possible.

And still another classic Jewish response is to pray for the welfare of those in need of succor. Although we do not understand G-d’s ways we do believe that He hears our tefillos. In Pirkei Avos we are exhorted to “pray for the peace of the kingdom.” In particular, when we have been the beneficiaries of such a malchus shel chessed, a government and a country that has been incredibly good and generous to us Jews, it behooves us to pray for the welfare of this country, and especially so in this hour of tragedy.

Finally, it is possible to learn any number of lessons from seeing what is unfolding. Anyone whose home is intact and whose family is safe should be moved to gratitude for the daily Divine goodness that we take for granted. And anyone who looked on with equanimity at the sight of thousands of Jews being uprooted from their homes in Gaza — anyone who said to himself, “Well, thank goodness I’m safe in America and not in Israel” — should realize that safety and security are guaranteed nowhere.

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13 Responses

  1. Netanel Livni says:

    I don’t understand. This was a national catastrophe so how is it not reasonable to look for a sin of the “America nation” as the cause for this punishment? Chazal do this all the time (Avot 5:7 for one example). No, we do not know Hashem’s ways and we cannot pretend to have some sort of divine calculator that can predict punishment. However, Chazal do often associate certain global punishments with certain widespread sins. Chazal say that the the Mabul (Noach’s flood) was decreed in Heaven once the people started engaging in widespread Chamas (Chamas is defined as stealing from an individual and compensating them for the theft). Is it impossible to the author that America’s demand that Israel perpetuate more Chamas on its own citizens be somehow associated with the disaster in New Orleans? We will never know all of the calculations that happen in Heaven but we can try to understand what might be ONE possible reason for a disaster. This is nothing less than one of the paths of teshuva that we are obligated to follow.

    As far as the suffering of the innocent, there are many ways to deal with the issue of individual suffering but the idea that sometimes the good get swept up in the sins of the wicked is not at all foreign to Jewish thought.

  2. Tom Beck says:

    “The left might say it’s because we unlawfully removed Saddam from his rightful position as beloved leader of his innocent country.”

    No we wouldn’t. We’re glad Saddam is gone. We might possibly say it’s because we invaded to keep him from using WMD that President Bush knew he didn’t actually have, or because we invaded in spite of warnings that we had no plan for the occupation even though President Bush had been warned he needed one. We might also say it is because America lets millions of people live in poverty while cutting taxes for the wealthy. But most leftists do not presume to speak for G-d or boast that we know why He does anything. Please do not caricature liberals by using strawman arguments that do not come close to reflecting what we actually say.

  3. Toby Katz says:


    “ ‘The left might say it’s because we unlawfully removed Saddam from his rightful position as beloved leader of his innocent country.’ ”

    “No we wouldn’t. We’re glad Saddam is gone. ”

    I guess there is “we” and there is “we.” Evidently you have not seen Michael Moore’s mockumentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, with its images of Iraqi children blissfully playing with balloons under the smiling benign visage of Saddam, followed by the destruction of Iraq’s idyllic paradise by the rough boots of the American fascists. It seems that some leftists are NOT happy to see Saddam gone, since they believe that the Iraqi people were better off before he was deposed. And there are even more leftists who /are/ happy to see him gone, but believe that this happy goal was achieved at too high a cost. Even many Jews who in one part of their brain acknowledge that Israel is safer with Saddam gone, in another separate compartment of their brain, hate and despise Bush for accomplishing this goal.

    Israel benefitted so clearly from Bush’s actions that it’s no wonder some anti-Semites think “the Jews” led Bush by the nose and forced America into a war just to help Israel. The wonder is that so many Jews think the same thing. And how did “the Jews” exercise such malevolent influence over Bush, when most American Jews despise Bush and voted for his opponent? Ah, sweet mystery.


    “But most leftists do not presume to speak for G-d or boast that we know why He does anything.”

    Actually, you are right about that.

    In point of fact, most leftists do not believe in G-d and don’t think He’s responsible for much of anything, good or bad. Leftists who are also religious maintain a “Wall of Separation” between church and state IN THEIR OWN MINDS. Different brain compartments, see above. They will believe in G-d, yet deny that He is responsible for what happens in the world.

    The perfect examplar of this kind of reasoning is Harold Kushner’s book, *Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,* in which he portrays G-d as a kind of benevolent Santa Claus who does the best He can but doesn’t have the power to prevent bad things from happening. G-d’s omnipotence, His omniscience? Kushner denies that G-d has those attributes. Since he creates G-d after his own image, a man like Kushner is de facto an atheist.

    Leftists DO believe in sin, even if they don’t believe in G-d, and I am already hearing that the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans is happening because we use too much gas and cause global warming; because we stole the land from the Indians and dredged the Mississippi; because Bush didn’t sign the Kyoto Protocals; because Americans are racist and don’t care about black victims; etc etc. So they DO ascribe blame but they do not see G-d’s hand in natural events. Often they assume that human beings are far more powerful than we really are, and that we /could/ prevent natural disasters if we really wanted to.

  4. Tom Beck says:

    I don’t know how many liberals you actually know, or how much serious liberal commentary you actually read. Most of the serious liberal commentary on New Orleans is focusing on the fact that the Bush Administration cut funding for the Army Corps of Engineer’s projects to strengthen the levees and that it had absolutely no plan for relief even though it knew well in advance how bad things might be (and might even have been worse).

    The point in Fahrenheit 911 of showing children playing was not to whitewash Saddam Hussein but to point out that things in Iraq under Saddam were not as bad as Bush had claimed (and I wonder if you can find children playing anywhere in Iraq now). And Michael Moore is just a filmmaker, not an elected official; nor does he speak for all liberals, even if we admire his talents.

    Again, please deal with real liberalism, not your imaginary caricature of it.

    We could not have prevented this natural disaster; but we could and should have planned better beforehand and reacted better afterward.

  5. Austin W. Fergusson says:

    “But if, despite this, you disobey Me and remain hostile to Me, I will act against you in wrathful hostility; I, for My part, will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. (Leviticus 26:27-28, NJPS)

    If G-d has designed and made this world, then there is apparently some type of correspondence between how G-d judges the nations and how G-d judges the individual and family both spiritually and physically. Does smoking, or drinking and driving, result in innocent parts of our bodies suffering? Were some innocent in the families of Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab the Reubenite, when the earth opened its mouth right in the middle of all Israel and swallowed them all up? (Deuteronomy 11:6)

    Whether or not Katrina is part of G-d’s judgment on America for her sins, what I can ask myself as an American and agreeing with Toby’s article, are the following questions:
    1. Are there sins here that do deserve G-d’s wrath?
    2. To what extent am I responsible for them, whether tacitly or actively?
    3. Are there sins in my family that as G-d judges, innocents will suffer?
    4. Will I suffer for my sins, even if I am not all bad?

    My answers are: yes, some, yes, and yes. So I am ashamed, desire to be more obedient, and know that we exist only at the mercy of G-d, to Him be the glory!

  6. Zev says:

    Mr. Beck:

    Re. the underfunded levees. The most recent report from the Corps of Engineers stresses that the levees that failed were not those affected by the funding cuts. In fact, those levees were in fine shape. The problem was that they were designed for nothing more than a category 3 storm, and so collapsed under Katrina’s category 5 weight.

  7. Toby Katz says:

    Netanel Livni wrote:

    “Is it impossible to the author that America’s demand that Israel perpetuate more Chamas on its own citizens be somehow associated with the disaster in New Orleans?”

    I agree that there likely is a cosmic association of some sort — certainly it’s striking that one week we’re reading about Jews losing their homes and the world yawns, the next week we’re reading about a whole city destroyed, and the world perforce takes notice. Punishment for America? Must be, but for what, exactly? Hard to specify. Undoubtedly, more than one sin. Don’t forget that New Orleans is the city of Mardi Gras, too.


    Zev wrote:

    “Re. the underfunded levees. The most recent report from the Corps of Engineers stresses that the levees that failed were not those affected by the funding cuts. In fact, those levees were in fine shape.”

    From what I’ve read, the levees that failed were precisely those that had most recently been shored up at major expense and with maximum engineering expertise. The levees failed precisely where they were considered LEAST likely to fail. It wouldn’t be possible to fund every possible fix-it project in the whole US to the nth degree anyway.

    But surely one of the lessons must be that mankind is punier than we like to think? We cannot outwit G-d. His will prevails. Our human hubris has taken a pounding. How arrogant we were to think we could take care of ourselves and didn’t need Him anymore, thank you.

  8. Zev says:

    “Don’t forget that New Orleans is the city of Mardi Gras, too.”

    Not just Mardi Gras. I learned today that “Southern Decadence,” a week-long gay festival second only to Mardi Gras, was slated to begin in NO on Sunday, Sept. 4th.

  9. Austin W. Fergusson says:

    ““Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 1:18-20)

    Many are looking at the disaster and are trying to affix blame on some other human cause, some other human agency, some other human. Somehow, if we can do that, we protect ourselves from G-d. We don’t have to recognize or admit to G-d’s supremacy. We don’t have to consider that maybe, for our sins, G-d’s hand is against us (verse 25).

    So we will not examine the possibility that by our own disobedience we have become enemies of G-d. In the instance quoted above, Isaiah gives us G-d’s word that His hand was against Jerusalem! If He could call Jerusalem his foe and enemy and turn His hand against her…

    Unfortunately, then we also cannot see His solution of our being willing and obedient. And if God has permitted the destruction, we should cry out to G-d for deliverance, as David cried out in the Psalms. If we recognize where disaster originates (even the English word recognizes a super-human origin), then we will look to the Source for healing and relief, and He will give us the wisdom and the strength to care for one another and to be obedient.

  10. Micha says:

    WADR, I think you’re viewing this backwards.

    What’s abnormal about all this is not the devistation of Katrina. It’s that — quite miraculously — G-d prevented this from happening years ago. What is so surprising about the flooding of a coastal city that is built on bayou below sea level?

    “All is in the hands of heaven except colds and heatstroke.” If you go outside in subfreezing winter in a bathing suit, do you look for what message Hashem was giving you when you susequently get a cold?

    If there are lessons to be learned it’s about valuing human life enough to be better prepared. It’s about how to care for the poor, so that people won’t be forced to live on onsuitable land, etc..

  11. Milhouse says:

    “the levees that failed were precisely those that had most recently been shored up at major expense and with maximum engineering expertise”

    Major expense, yes. Maximum expertise? I’m not so sure. This was NO, after all. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t have the money to do the whole system, or it might all have collapsed…

    In any case, I believe that the levees on Lake Pontchartrain and the canals leading to it weren’t the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers, but of the Orleans Parish Levee Board. So any federal budget cuts wouldn’t affect it anyway. The ACE handled the levees on the Mississippi, which all held.

    Oh, and Condoleeza Rice isn’t from Louisiana, she’s from Alabama. Birmingham, specifically. And as far as I can tell, the only way Katrina affected Birmingham was by flooding it…with refugees.

  12. Yehouda Toledano says:

    Hello and Shavoua Tov.

    I couldn’t resist and not sending few world.
    I heard, personally from Rav chazkel Levinstein Zatsal, that today—35 years ago—we are at the second generation of total “amei aratsut” in “hashkafa”, imagine what he would have said now-days!!!

    Well, the Talmud said: “Ein pouranut baa laolam ela bishvil Yisrael”, which mean that it’s not for them but for us to learn and “do tsouhva”!!!
    The “Maor vashemes”, explain that if we don’t make tshouva is like we made it appears like HKBH, “kaviachol” did something wrong “chas veshalom”!!!! Because they are not in the “business of tshouva”, so it looks a bad thing—and we know that HKBH don’t do such things!

    What happened in Sodom, it is written that is because Sodom is in “Erets Yisrael”, and the “maboul” was before “klal Yisrael” appeared in stage.

    In any case the only conclusion that we can and have to arrive, is that we have to make teshouva! Nothing else, we are playing with fire! Even Iyov’s friends where punished when they tried to find a “reason”, and they probably where Tsadikim! So, how we are going to find the reason, or/and why there, and why this way.
    Just one little thought: are the poor more responsible than the riche, in the US?

    Rav chazkel Levinstein Zatsal also said, that if we don’t learn from catastrophes that occurs around the world it’s really mean that: we are happy about them!!!

    Sorry for my bad English

    Besorot Tovot

    Yehouda Toledano

  13. Toby Katz says:

    Yehouda Toledano wrote:
    the Talmud said: “Ein pouranut baa laolam ela bishvil Yisrael”, which mean that it’s not for them but for us to learn and “do tsouhva”!!!


    When the Talmud says “X didn’t come ela for Y” [“X doesn’t come except for reason Y”], very often it isn’t meant literally, that this is THE ONLY reason. Personally I take it to mean that Jews are the primary intended recipients of Hashem’s message, but I don’t think Hashem picks goyim randomly to suffer ONLY in order to teach the Jews a lesson. Rather, each person who suffers, suffers because he deserved suffering or because there was some lesson or test that Hashem had in mind, and in addition, Jews are supposed to learn from the suffering of others that we should examine our own deeds and do teshuva.

    As for Iyov’s friends, they had no right to assume that they knew the reason for his suffering, but on the other hand, the whole Book of Iyov tells you that suffering is not random, but for a reason — although without a Navi, we can’t always know the reason. When others suffer, we are supposed to help them and not add to their suffering by saying, “Well you must have been a really bad person to deserve something like this!”

    Don’t worry about your English, you made yourself understood very well and I appreciate your taking the time to write.

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